Find your baby’s SLEEP RHYTHM

Learn­ing to un­der­stand your child’s nat­u­ral pat­terns will help the whole fam­ily take a big step to­wards con­tented, stress-free nights

Mother & Baby (Australia) - - Sweet Dreams -

Do you dream about your baby drift­ing off to sleep by him­self? Or your three-month-old bliss­fully snooz­ing through the clat­ter of you get­ting ready for bed, then not need­ing you again un­til seven o’clock the next morn­ing? Yes, it’s the goal we’re all sup­pos­edly work­ing to­ward: our baby sleep­ing through the night. But hold on a sec­ond. This is how an adult sleeps, not a baby. Be­cause a baby’s sleep is very dif­fer­ent to yours.

Par­ent­ing ex­pert and au­thor Sarah Ock­well-Smith says once you un­der­stand these dif­fer­ences, you’ll re­alise all the ‘baby sleep prob­lems’ we talk about are ac­tu­ally nor­mal pat­terns of baby slum­ber and that our lit­tle ones are sim­ply do­ing just what they’re bi­o­log­i­cally pre-pro­grammed to do.

Once you know what’s nor­mal for your baby, then you’ll un­der­stand what’s hap­pened when he calls for your help in the night, why he needs you right now and how to help him get back to sleep. And know­ing all about his nor­mal slum­ber pat­terns will also en­sure that, as your young­ster grows, you do things that sup­port the de­vel­op­ment of his sleep, rather than dis­rupt it.

So, how about we stop ex­pect­ing ba­bies to sleep like adults and fret­ting when they don’t? Here, Sarah ex­plains ev­ery­thing you need to know about how your baby’s sleep dif­fers from yours. Read on, and hope­fully you’ll wake up to­mor­row morn­ing with a much more pos­i­tive view of how well your baby slept last night.


Ba­bies don’t sleep through the night – and nei­ther do adults. We don’t sim­ply go to bed then wake in the morn­ing, get­ting our zzz’s in one long chunk. Each and ev­ery one of us moves through sev­eral cy­cles of sleep, and each of these cy­cles con­tains two dif­fer­ent phases. First comes non-rapid eye move­ment (NREM) sleep. This starts as a feel­ing of drowsi­ness or a light sleep – a bit like when you’re try­ing re­ally hard not to nod off dur­ing an episode of Game of Thrones. And it gets pro­gres­sively deeper, more rest­ful and harder to awaken from.

Dur­ing the next sleep phase, rapid eye move­ment (REM), there’s a high level of ac­tiv­ity in your brain and faster brain­waves. This is the phase of dreams, and if you watch your baby when he’s in this part of the sleep cy­cle, you might see his eyes dart­ing around be­neath his closed eye­lids. Both you and your baby start with NREM sleep and move into REM sleep: that’s one com­plete sleep cy­cle. And at the end of one cy­cle, you start a new one.

Now, here’s where those vi­tal dif­fer­ences be­gin. An adult sleep cy­cle lasts around one and a half hours. Back in the days be­fore bub ar­rived, you prob­a­bly used to get seven to eight hours of de­li­cious, undis­turbed sleep ev­ery night. Dur­ing that time, you would have moved through five dif­fer­ent sleep cy­cles. But your baby’s cy­cle is much shorter: at birth, a baby’s sleep

A baby’s sleep is very dif­fer­ent to yours.

cy­cle lasts for around 45 min­utes, and by the age of one it’s around 60 min­utes. These shorter cy­cles mean ba­bies have roughly twice as many sleep cy­cles per night as adults, mean­ing an av­er­age 12-hour night of shut-eye could fea­ture 16 dif­fer­ent sleep cy­cles.

We al­ready know that the be­gin­ning of each sleep cy­cle starts with a feel­ing of drowsi­ness. Af­ter ev­ery one of these sleep cy­cles, your baby will re­turn to a drowsy – and pos­si­bly awake – state. There are up to 16 oc­ca­sions ev­ery night when he may wake and need your as­sis­tance to get back to sleep. If he learns that when­ever he en­ters this drowsy state there’s re­ally no need to worry – and that means he finds him­self in the same place where he went to sleep and that you’ll be there if he needs you – he’ll grad­u­ally be able to link these cy­cles to­gether with­out your help.


The dif­fer­ence in sleep-cy­cle length isn’t the only vari­ance be­tween baby and adult slum­ber. The amount of NREM and REM sleep also dif­fers greatly. As an adult, your sleep cy­cle is roughly 80 per cent NREM sleep and 20 per cent REM sleep. But a new­born has 50 per cent NREM sleep and 50 per cent REM sleep.

REM sleep is lighter, and more easy to rouse from. This means while your baby is in this phase he might wake more eas­ily in re­sponse to noise, light or any other change in his en­vi­ron­ment – something as sim­ple as the dif­fer­ence in tem­per­a­ture af­ter falling asleep in your warm arms and be­ing placed in a cold cot might be enough to rouse him. It helps to min­imise stim­uli and keep his en­vi­ron­ment un­changed, es­pe­cially in the early days when this pro­por­tion of lighter sleep is so high.

All this ad­di­tional REM sleep also means he’ll ex­pe­ri­ence more dreams. These might dis­turb him too and cause him to wake up, and he’ll seek re­as­sur­ance from you to soothe any feel­ings of fear or anx­i­ety. So it’s im­por­tant to give him the com­fort he needs if he’s to learn to sleep well.


You have an in­ter­nal ‘body clock’ that tells you when it’s time to be­gin and stay in these sleep cy­cles, and when it’s time to end them and be awake. This is called your ‘cir­ca­dian rhythm’. It’s a con­tin­u­ous cir­cu­lar rhythm that lasts for about 24 hours and is based on your body’s re­ac­tion to the pres­ence or ab­sence of day­light. When your eyes are ex­posed to day­light, a sig­nal is sent that trig­gers the hor­mone cor­ti­sol to be se­creted, which helps you feel alert and awake. At night, the ab­sence of light trig­gers mela­tonin to be se­creted in­stead, and this low­ers your body tem­per­a­ture, which ini­ti­ates sleep.

When you were preg­nant, your baby re­ceived a cer­tain amount of your cor­ti­sol and mela­tonin via the um­bil­i­cal cord, in ac­cor­dance with day and night-time. But when he was born, he lost this ‘bor­rowed’ cir­ca­dian rhythm. With­out it, a new­born can’t tell night from day, and that’s why he’ll sleep er­rat­i­cally over a 24-hour pe­riod with no dis­cernible night-and-day pat­tern. He will even­tu­ally de­velop his own

A new­born can’t tell night from day.

Be pa­tient…you’ll need to wait for his body clock to de­velop.

cir­ca­dian rhythm, but it takes time. It’s not un­til he’s around 12 to 14 weeks old that it be­gins to es­tab­lish it­self, and it takes sev­eral more months to ma­ture.

To sup­port your baby’s de­vel­op­ing body clock, you need to aim to give him as much nat­u­ral day­time light and night-time ex­po­sure to dark­ness as pos­si­ble. Aim to keep evenings dark, be­cause it’s not just day­light that ini­ti­ates the chain re­ac­tion that ends in a boost of wide-awake hor­mones. In fact, any short­wave blue light trig­gers it, and this is emit­ted from en­ergy-sav­ing light bulbs, tele­vi­sions, tablets and mo­bile phone screens. Other light sources, such as your baby’s night-light or bed­time pro­jec­tor, may also in­ter­fere with the se­cre­tion of mela­tonin.

Do all you can to ob­serve nat­u­ral lev­els of light­ing dur­ing the day, too. This in­cludes not mak­ing the day­time ar­ti­fi­cially dark. It’s com­mon to use black­out blinds, or sleep shades for car seats or prams, to fos­ter day­time naps. But un­der­ex­po­sure to light in the day­time has been shown to have neg­a­tive ef­fects on cir­ca­dian rhythms. Dur­ing the day, leave the blinds up and let your baby nap in nat­u­ral light lev­els. It may seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but ex­pos­ing your baby to more light in the day­time will have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on his cir­ca­dian rhythm and so his night-time sleep.

And be pa­tient, too. You can do all you like to ‘teach’ him the dif­fer­ence be­tween night and day, but you’ll also need to wait for the nec­es­sary bi­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses to hap­pen and for his body clock to de­velop.

Hav­ing your sleep pat­tern dis­rupted night af­ter night is very dif­fi­cult, but un­der­stand­ing why your baby is sleep­ing like he is will help you to give him the com­fort he needs, and speed you both on your way to more con­tented nights. Sarah Ock­well-Smith is the au­thor of Why Your Baby’s Sleep Mat­ters (Pin­ter & Martin, $24.99).

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