Great Health Guide


- Kim Corley

Explaining the different sleep cycles in young children

When we become parents, we expect some form of sleep deprivatio­n, it comes with the territory. But at some level we are all waiting to post that milestone card on social media. The one that says our baby slept through the night for 10-12 hours. But the truth about sleeping through the night is a little different from what is commonly thought.

"We sleep in cycles, waking frequently."


The term ‘sleeping through the night’ is really a misnomer. It doesn’t happen. Noone, adults or babies really ‘sleep through’ the night. We all wake frequently during our night’s sleep. However, if we wake for less than a few minutes, we simply don’t remember it as there is not enough time for memory consolidat­ion. What is happening is perfectly normal; instead of continuous­ly sleeping through the night, we wake in between sleep cycles.


Sleep cycles are made up of five sleep stages. Newborns under 12-weeks of age are the exception, with only two stages of sleep. Their sleep is a little different. But once they are past that point, say by the three or four month mark, their sleep cycles resemble those of adults. During sleep cycles, humans transition through five different stages of sleep. These range from light sleep to deep sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Moving through the five stages of sleep makes up one sleep cycle. And at the end of each sleep cycle, we either come to the surface of sleep briefly or wake fully. Prior to late toddlerhoo­d, these sleep cycles are relatively short. They only last around 40-45 minutes for babies. Compared to around 90 minutes for adults. So, it makes sense that babies wake more frequently at night (even if they don’t need a feed). Indeed, ‘sleeping like a baby’ can mean more wakes than an adult, not less. If you have a child waking every one to two sleep cycles, rest assured that it’s perfectly normal. It is natural for them to stir and resettle, or to wake fully around that point. But note that waking fully doesn’t mean they’ve had enough sleep. And it won’t be as refreshing for them. Healthy sleep is not about changing the fact that your child really does wake multiple times a night – they likely still will wake for a brief period. This is a lifelong thing. The real aim is for a child (whatever their age) to become comfortabl­e in their environmen­t and confident about seamlessly slipping into the next sleep cycle, without the need for something or someone to intervene and help.


The trick to better sleep is linking these sleep cycles and happily returning to sleep. Ideally children who still nap during the day link a minimum of two sleep cycles each nap. It is worth trying to resettle them if they need more sleep. Indeed, the trick to what is commonly referred to as ‘sleeping through the night’ is being able to seamlessly transition or settle between these sleep cycles. Linking one cycle after the other with little effort.

This linking is ideally what you see when a baby is ready to give up a night feed, the stretches of consolidat­ed sleep - the hours where they seamlessly drift back into another sleep cycle and increase until they can sleep for 10-12 hours at night, uninterrup­ted. Yes, that can and does happen! But it also means that baby needs to learn how to do this and that learning often starts at bedtime. It’s the uninterrup­ted sleep that helps us feel refreshed the next morning, so consolidat­ing those sleep hours is an important part of healthy sleep. Adding up the hours of broken sleep still won’t feel as refreshing as if they were linked together. If you feel tired after a broken night, chances are your child feels it too.


Sleep cycles make perfect sense when you think about it. The simple act of sleeping makes us vulnerable. After all we’re lying down with our eyes shut, unaware of our surroundin­gs for a solid portion of the night. If we really did this in solid blocks for eight hours as adults and 10-12 hours as children, humanity may not have survived so long. It makes good survival sense to check out your environmen­t, make sure everything is OK and then, peacefully drift back into another cherished sleep cycle.


• After 3-4 months of age, babies have five stages of sleep just like adults.

• Moving through these five stages makes up one sleep cycle.

• Sleep cycles for children are much shorter than for adults, they stir or wake after 45 minutes.

• For a child, one sleep cycle is typically not an adequate amount of time for a decent daytime nap.

• If your child is waking frequently at night, then they won’t feel as refreshed as if they slipped seamlessly between the cycles. Broken sleep takes its toll, especially after the six month mark.

• Good healthy sleep, being able to consolidat­e more hours overnight and have long day sleeps, depends on a baby’s ability to transition between sleep cycles.

Kim Corley is a certified baby and child sleep consultant with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and pharmacolo­gy. She is also a Mum who believes in the healing power of sleep and has helped numerous families solve their sleep issues over the years. You can contact Kim via her website.

"The mind is a flexible mirror, adjust it, to see a better world"

-Amit Ray

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