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
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.
HE HAS SHORTER SLEEP CYCLES
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.
HE HAS MORE REM SLEEP
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.
YOUR BABY WAS BORN WITHOUT A BODY CLOCK
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).