Stressful Nights: Understanding Your Baby’s Sleep Cycle

The Baby Sleep Book by William Sears et al, with a forward by Dr James McKennaHere’s a well-known fact: Your baby needs more sleep than you do. In fact, babies spend two-thirds of their day sleeping to help their brain make the proper connections. This only happens during sufficient sleep time.

However, your baby’s sleep is often interrupted making you sleepless at night. It’s not because they can’t sleep a full, long stretch but because they need to wake up to be fed or be made comfortable (changing time).

Usually, the average time your baby will sleep is be between 14-16 hours. Their sleeping routine starts out with short sleep and wake cycles with longer wake-up cycles during the night for feeding and changing time. But then as your baby grows older, their sleeping time is gradually reduced, as are their night wakings. By the time that they’re 18-24 months old, their sleeping hours have likely been reduced to 11-13 hours.

The stages of your baby’s sleep

Just like the normal adult, your babies experience different stages of sleep. To understand that better here’s the order of your baby’s sleep cycle:

  1. Drowsiness your baby’s droopy eyes is a good indication that they would go into light sleep.
  2. Light sleep this is just your baby relaxing and preparing to enter into quiet sleep.
  3. Quiet sleep or NREM this is the between stage from light and deep sleep where dreams can also happen. In older children this stage of sleep is where sleepwalking and nightmares usually occurs. As for babies, this stage is mostly a non-dream state that is shorter and is well developed in newborns rather than adults.
  4. Deep sleep by this time your baby will be deep into sleeping and is actually dreaming.
  5. Dream or REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep most babies spend 50%-80% of their bedtime on REM sleep. Premature babies spend a lot more time in REM sleep than full term babies accounting to 80% compared to 50% of the latter. While an adult dreams for an average of two hours, babies can accumulate a total of eight hours of dream sleep alone.

It’s very important for you to understand the stages of your child’s sleep because that is how you will understand their movements while they have their eyes shut.

Babies in REM sleep tend to have the occasional twitch, irregular breathing and eyes darting back and forth under the eyelids while having their bodies completely still. During quiet sleep or NREM, babies will have deep and regular breathing. However, you may notice your babies give a start, move their arms, legs or suddenly suck their fingers or do similar actions during this time, but these movements known as hypnagogic startles and are very normal. Sometimes, your babies will even open their eyes and look like they’re already awake but actually they’re not. They are still truly asleep and only need a minute or two to get back to their sleeping cycle. Don’t disturb your babies right away and let them sleep by themselves.

Usually, after entering REM sleep, your babies will go back again to the deep sleep cycle and quiet sleep before waking up. Unlike adults, who have an average 90 minutes sleep cycle (though it varies through the night), your baby will have a complete sleep cycle of about 50 minutes.

So now that you know exactly how your baby sleeps, the next thing to do would be to develop good sleeping habits and bedtime routines for them to ensure that they get to enjoy a good night’s sleep and that you get enough sleep too.