Everything you need to know about your baby's sleep cycles and patterns

Everything you need to know about your baby's sleep cycles and patterns

Did you know good sleep is essential for the proper functioning and the development of your baby’s brain?

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Sleep is one of the basic activities of the brain during the stages of early development. The circadian rhythms or the rhythmic biological cycles recurring at 24-hour intervals are regulated by light and dark.

These rhythms take time to develop, thus making sleep cycles irregular for the newborns. These rhythms begin to develop at about 6 weeks and by the age of 3-6 months, most babies have regular sleep schedules.1

How sleep affects your baby's brain

Sleeping has a great impact on physical and mental development. A good sleep is required for the proper functioning and the development of your baby’s brain. It has also been found that the human growth hormone, a protein hormone secreted by the pituitary gland throughout the day, is secreted most intensely shortly after the beginning of deep sleep.2


Sleep has also been found to have a profound effect on the learning and cognitive abilities of your baby.3, 4, 5, 6Basically, there are two alternating states or types of sleep, namely non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM).7

  • NREM is quiet sleep, that has stages which progress from light to very deep sleep, where the blood supply to the muscles is increased. The energy levels are restored, growth and repair can occur and various essential hormones crucial to growth and development are released.1
  • REM is active and light sleep, where the brain is active and dreaming can occur. This allows stimulation of the brain and assists in a healthy growth.1The bodies become immobile, breathing and heart beats turn irregular.7One can easily awaken from a light sleep whereas deep sleep is more peaceful and restful.8 Quiet sleep represents the end of the baby’s sleep cycle and post this, the baby may re-enter active sleep or wake up.

A normal sleep cycle involves both light sleep (REM) and deep sleep (NREM).8Both grown-ups and children move through repeating cycles of light and deep sleep. Ideally, most of the sleep in the early part of the night is deep sleep. About half way through the normal length sleep, the sleep cycle flips and by morning, about 80% of sleep is light sleep.8

Understanding baby sleep cycles

Baby sleep cycles are quite short, lasting for around 50-60 minutes for the first 9 months of life.9 A few babies may fall into deep sleep very quickly, while others may fidget and mutter up to 20 minutes prior to falling asleep again. Due to the dominance of light sleep by morning, children usually wake up briefly at the end of each sleep cycle.

This is a normal part of healthy sleep. Some babies may require assistance to go back to sleep and hence call out when they wake up, while some may put themselves back to sleep again.

The sleep cycles tend to change over time. At birth, full term babies spend half of their sleeping time in light sleep and have shorter sleeping cycles than adults. Thus, they have a higher number of awakenings and are biologically programmed to sleep more lightly.

With age, the amount of light sleep in our sleep cycle decreases and by the age of 3, 33% of sleep is light and by the age of 13, 20% of our sleep can be called light sleep. It is seen that adults spend only 20% of their sleep time in REM sleep, while newborns spend around 50%.10

Continue reading on the next page to know more about baby sleep patterns!

Your baby's sleep patterns

It takes time to consolidate most of our sleep into nighttime. The sleeping needs and sleep habits may vary from baby to baby.

  • Newborns (babies under 6 months) sleep on and off through the day and night.
  • Babies aged 3-6 months may advance to a pattern of 2-3 daytime sleep of up to 2 hours each.
  • Most babies aged 6-12 months are to bed between 6 pm and 10 pm. It usually takes them less than 30 minutes to go to sleep.
  • Most can sleep for a period of 6 hours or more at night and wake less.
  • The daytime naps of babies aged 6-12 months usually last for 1-2 hours. Studies have shown that waking at night can also be related to the baby’s worry of being separated from a parent.8

Various factors can affect sleep in babies. There are factors that affect arousal. The baby may find it hard to arouse, or may be easily aroused.

Relationship between brain development and sleep

Studies suggest that babies are harder to arouse if they live with a smoker (maternal smoking)11,12,13, sleep on their stomachs14, are sleep-deprived15, recovering from an infection16 or if their faces are covered by bedclothes17.

Studies suggest that babies are aroused more easily if they sleep in the supine position12and are breastfed18. Various other factors can affect sleep-wake cycles in babies. These include fever, infections, respiratory troubles, acid refluxes, snoring and sleep apnea that may also disrupt and affect sleeping patterns in babies.

Studies have shown a relation between brain development and sleep. There is preliminary evidence on the role of sleep in learning in infants.3

baby picture

Naps have been found to promote abstraction in language-learning infants as well as promote a qualitative change in memory and greater flexibility in learning.4 Frequent naps in infants have proven to be instrumental in the establishment of a long-term memory.5

Sleep can also promote and act as a bridge towards early neural development across childhood and also helps in physical and emotional regeneration. Poor sleep can be linked to language deficits as well.6It facilitates declarative memory consolidation in infants.19

Naps taken by 12-month old infants have been found to promote a flexible memory retrieval and has a facilitative effect on the infant’s flexibility of memory retrieval.20

Also Read: How to help your baby sleep through the night without any interruptions

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[Images courtesy: Pixabay]
1. The importance of sleep for babies and children. Stables daycare website. stablesdaycare.co.uk/the-importance-of-sleep-for-babies-and-children/Accessed August 3 2016.
2.The connection between sleep and growth. Babycenter website.www.babycenter.com/0_the-connection-between-sleep-and-growth-ages-5-to-8_3658990.bc.Accessed August 3 2016 Dahl R.
3.Sleep and the developing brain. Sleep. 2007 Sep 1; 30(9): 1079–1080. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1978403/Gómez RL. Bootzin RR. Nadel L. Naps promote abstraction in language learning infants. PsycholSci 2006 Aug;17(8):670-4. DOI:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01764.x. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16913948/Hupbach A Gomez RL, Bootzin RR Nadel L.
4.Nap-dependent learning in infants. Dev Sci. 2009 Nov;12(6):1007-12. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00837.x. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1984005 Gómez RL. Edgin JO.
5.Sleep as a window in early neural development: Shifts in sleep-dependent learning effects across childhood. Child DevPerspect. 2015 Sep;9(3):183-189. Epub 2015 Jun 20. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4636128/
6.Children and sleep. A sleepfoundation.org website. sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/children-and-sleep. Accessed August 3 2016
The hows and whys of sleep. Raising children website. raisingchildren.net.au/articles/sleep_the_hows_and_whys.html/context/730. Accessed August 3 2016 JenniO.G.LeBourgeoisM.K..
7. U
nderstanding sleep–wake behavior and sleep disorders in children: the value of a model.Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2006 May; 19(3): 282–287.doi:  10.1097/01.yco.0000218599.32969.03. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2980811/ Melissa M. Burnham Beth L. Goodlin-Jones. GaylorE.. AndersT.F.
8. Nighttime sleep-wake patterns and self-soothing from birth to one year of age: a longitudinal intervention study.J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2002 Sep; 43(6): 713–725.www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201415/Horne R. Parslow P. HardingR.
9. Postnatal development of ventilatory and arousal responses to hypoxia in human infantsRespiratory Physiology & Neurobiology. Volume 149, Issues 1–3, 15 November 2005, Pages 257–271doi:10.1016/j.resp.2005.03.006www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1569904805000868.
1O. Effects of maternal tobacco smoking, sleeping position, and sleep state on arousal in healthy term infants. Horne R, Ferens D, Watts A.M, Vitkovic J,Lacey B, Andrew S, Cranage S M, Chau B, Greaves R, T M Adamson.Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed 2002;87:F100–F105. fn.bmj.com/content/87/2/F100.full.pdf+html.Horne R. FrancoPT.Michael Adamson.José Groswasser. KahnA.

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