As a new parent, you may be wondering about your baby's sleep patterns and cycles. Understanding baby sleep cycles is important for ensuring that your little one gets the rest they need for healthy growth and development. In this article, we will discuss what baby sleep cycles are, how they change over time, and how to establish healthy sleep habits for your baby.
If you’re struggling with your baby’s sleep, maybe you’re trying to get your baby to nap for longer or wondering when your baby will start connecting sleep cycles, start your free sleep consultation and get step by step support from the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ app.
What Are Baby Sleep Cycles?
Baby sleep cycles refer to the different stages of sleep that babies go through during the night. There are two main types of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or ‘active’ sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) or ‘deep’ sleep. REM sleep is the stage of sleep where we dream and is thought to be important for brain development and memory consolidation. NREM sleep is a deeper stage of sleep where our bodies rest and recover.
A Baby’s Sleep Cycle Has Five Main Stages:
Stage 1: Drowsiness, when your baby just falls asleep and is in a very light sleep from which they can easily wake – lasts just a few mins.
Stage 2: Slightly deeper REM cycle in which your baby can still wake easily.
Stage 3: Deeper REM sleep in which your aby will be quiet, still and harder to wake
Stage 4: Deep NREM stage in which your baby may move or make noise, possibly from dreams, but is much harder to wake. During this stage your baby’s breathing and heart rate will slow down and their muscles will relax. This is the most important stage of sleep, as it’s when your baby’s body repairs and grows.
Stage 5: A light sleep that transitions into your baby waking or connecting to the next sleep cycle for a longer nap or overnight sleep.
After each sleep cycle, your baby may briefly wake up or move around before falling back to sleep. This is normal, and it's important not to rush in to soothe them unless they're crying or seem uncomfortable.
Babies spend a larger portion of their sleep time in the REM stage of sleep than adults do. This is because REM sleep is important for their brain development and the consolidation of memories. As babies grow and develop, the amount of time they spend in REM sleep decreases and the amount of time they spend in deep sleep (NREM) increases.
Not every sleep cycle has the same mix of NREM and REM sleep, that’s why the right balance of daytime and overnight sleep is so important. When your baby sleeps can be just as important as how much they sleep.
How To Know When Your Baby is Tired and Ready for Sleep?
As your baby nears the end of their wake window, start looking for sleepy cues.
Sleepy Cues include:
- Rubbing eyes
- Getting fussy
- Zoning out
- Eyes glaze over
- Pulling ears
- Turning head side-to-side
Tracking your baby’s sleep, with tools like the Smart Sleep Coach app, is a great way of staying ahead of their sleep needs. It includes handy reminders to start looking for sleepy cues and automatic schedule adjustments as your baby’s sleep happens.
What’s A Newborn Sleep Cycle?
A newborn’s sleep cycle will last 30-45mins. Newborns spend most of their time sleeping, but their sleep patterns can be unpredictable and may not follow a regular schedule. Newborns sleep for shorter periods, and spend most of their time in the REM stage of sleep. This is because REM sleep is important for their brain development and memory consolidation.
Newborns tend to follow a 24 hour sleep cycle, waking to eat at least every 2-3 hours.
Should My Newborn have a Sleep Schedule?
Newborns are not biologically ready to be scheduled, their circadian rhythm won’t fully mature until they reach around 4-months of age. Until then, they will wake to feed continuously every few hours through an entired 24 hour cycle.
Why is My Newborn Nocturnal? Why Can’t I get my Newborn to Sleep During the Night?
It is not uncommon for newborns to have their days and nights mixed up, leading to more wakefulness and activity during the night. This is often referred to as "nocturnal" behavior, and it can be a challenge for new parents who are already struggling to adjust to the demands of caring for a newborn.
There are several reasons why newborns may be more active at night
- They are not yet able to distinguish between day and night. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, newborns have not yet developed a circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock that tells us when to wake up and when to sleep. As a result, they may be more alert and active during the night , when you would prefer them to be sleeping.
- They may be experiencing discomfort from hunger, gas, or other digestive issues. According to a study published in the journal Acta Paediatrica, newborns who experienced colic or other digestive issues were more likely to have disrupted sleep patterns . If your newborn is showing signs of discomfort during the night, it may be worth discussing these symptoms with your pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical issues.
- Newborns have much shorter sleep cycles than adults. According to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns typically sleep in short periods of 2-4 hours at a time, waking to feed, and they may need to feed or be changed during the night. This means that even if your newborn is not particularly active during the night, they may still be waking up frequently and requiring attention.
If you are struggling with a nocturnal newborn, you can try to encourage better sleep habits by:
- Establishing a consistent bedtime routine that limits stimulation in the hour or two leading up to bedtime and ends with them drowsy but awake.
- Ensuring your baby’s sleep environment encourages sleep – pitch dark, playing background white or brown noise, 68-72F and calm.
- Being patient and understanding, as newborn sleep patterns can be unpredictable and take time to develop.
How Much Should My Baby Sleep?
It's important to note that every baby is different, and the recommended sleep duration for each age range can vary slightly depending on the individual baby's needs. Additionally, the total amount of sleep a baby gets may be spread out over several naps during the day and night, rather than one continuous block of sleep.
Do Sleep Patterns Change As My Baby Gets Older?
Babies go through a lot of changes in their sleep patterns during their first 2 years of life. Understanding these changes can help parents stay one step ahead of sleep, tools like the Smart Sleep Coach app is like having a Sleep Consultant in your pocket and can support you every step of the way.
Newborns (0-3 months) Experience A Higher Mix of REM Sleep
Newborns sleep a lot, but their sleep is not very structured – in fact it is usually very disorganized. They typically wake up every 2-3 hours to eat, and then go back to sleep. Their sleep is characterized by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is thought to be important for brain development. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, babies may spend up to 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep during the first few months of life.
Babies (3-6 months) Develop More Regular Sleep Patterns
At around 3 months of age, babies start to develop more regular sleep patterns. They may sleep for longer stretches at night, but still wake up to eat. Many babies will begin to take short naps during the day, as well.
Babies (6-12 months): Most Babies Can Start to Sleep Through the Night
Between 5 and 9 months of age, most babies are capable of sleeping through the night without waking up to eat. However, they may still wake up due to teething, illness, or other factors. They will transition from 3 to 2 naps around 8 months and stay on that 2 nap schedule until 15-18 months – this morning nap being more mentally restorative and the afternoon nap being more physically restorative.
Toddlers (12-24 months): Getting to 1 Nap a Day
As babies become toddlers, their sleep patterns continue to change. They will start to transition to one nap per day somewhere between 15 and 18 months, which typically lasts 1-3 hours. It's important to continue to instill healthy sleep habits, such as setting consistent bedtimes and creating a calming bedtime routine , as well as reasonable sleep boundaries to ensure toddlers get the sleep they need.
It's important to keep in mind that every baby is different, and sleep patterns can vary widely from child to child. If you are concerned about your baby's sleep habits or have questions about how much sleep they need, it's always a good idea to speak with your pediatrician.
Babies’ sleep patterns change significantly in the first 24 months of life. It's important to establish healthy sleep habits early on, such as setting consistent bedtimes and creating a calming bedtime routine, to ensure babies get the sleep they need for their growth and development.
If you are concerned about your baby's sleep habits, it's always a good idea to speak with your pediatrician, as they can provide guidance and support. By understanding the changes that occur in babies' sleep patterns during the first two years of life, parents can help their little ones get the restful sleep they need to thrive.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Newborn Sleep Patterns. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/sleep/Pages/Newborn-Sleep-Patterns.aspx
Pinelli, J., & Symington, A. J. (2005). Non-nutritive sucking for promoting physiologic stability and nutrition in preterm infants. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.cd001071.pub2
National Sleep Foundation. (2021). Newborn Sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/newborn-sleep
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2017). Infant Sleep. https://aasm.org/resources/factsheets/infantsleep/
National Sleep Foundation. (2021). Infant Sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/infants/sleep-patterns
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Bedtime Routines for School-Aged Children. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/sleep/Pages/Bedtime-Routines-for-School-Aged-Children.aspx
National Sleep Foundation. (2021). Toddler Sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/toddlers/sleep-guidelines
How We Wrote This Article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.