Understanding My Baby's Sleep Patterns

Understanding how your baby sleeps and why they sleep like they do can help you as a parent be more realistic about the length of time your baby may sleep for. It will also allow you to make more informed and positive decisions which are right for your family. It can also help with the question every parent of a new baby gets asked "is he/she a good sleeper?" These questions can lead to a lot of anxiety - I am I doing it right, should my baby be sleeping more...? Understanding what is 'normal' can help you feel more confident as a parent.

There are many factors that affect how well and how long a baby will sleep. A baby’s stomach is roughly the size of their clenched fist, i.e. small, so the amount of milk a baby can take in one go is correspondingly small. When their tummy is empty they will be hungry and need it refilling and in the early days that is going to be often (probably every 2-3 hours).

Babies’ brain activity during sleep is different from adults. A baby has a shorter sleep cycle than an adult of about 60 minutes and, like adults, different phases of sleep. Unlike an adult who drops pretty quickly into deep “quiet” or “restorative” sleep within a few minutes of falling asleep, a baby will spend about 20 minutes in REM sleep or “active” sleep first. They can easily be awakened during this period. During this active sleep period the brain is busy making new neural connections and growing. There is recent research that shows that babies who sleep within an hour of learning something new are much more likely to retain that knowledge (a great reason for reading at bedtime).

With a sixty minute sleep cycle there will be regular times in the night where a baby can easily be wakened. It is not fully understood why some babies wake more frequently than others but there are lots of theories! Possible reasons are hunger, separation anxiety (usually from about 7 months), learning new skills and waking with the urge to practice them and of course teething or other discomforts. Learning your baby’s cues and understanding more about different development stages (you will find there are links with quite a few other Baby College topics) can help you respond to your baby’s needs in the night.

It is also worth reading about evolution to fully understand why babies sleep like they do and to make sure you set realistic expectations.

“ Anthropologists think about human babies differently to most other people — in trying to understand why our babies sleep the way they do, we look at humans as mammals and consider the importance of mammalian biology and evolution in understanding how we are and what we do. Western baby-care practices are rather recent developments, and the biology of human babies expects something rather different than 21st century families might provide.” – Infant Sleep Information Source


During our discussions at the beginning of class and the handouts we give to all our parents we at Baby College help give parents lots of information about their baby’s sleep so that they can make informed decisions for their growing baby and toddler.

To find our more about current safe sleeping guidelines visit the Lullaby Trust  www.lullabytrust.org.uk

For lots more resources and information about sleep visit www.basisonline.org.uk. This website presents research evidence about biologically normal sleep for human babies.

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