Sleep & Routine

Sleeping like a baby

Parenting Place baby sleep strategies

When you have a baby, sleep is a big deal. Well, it’s a big deal for everyone – but for parents of babies, sleep is right at the top of the ‘things to sort out’ list. And fair enough too, because we know how important sleep is for our babies and for ourselves. And we also know how difficult things can be when you’re operating through a fog of sleep-deprivation as a parent. I mean, coffee is great, but it can only do so much…

While we can’t ‘sort out’ sleep for you or your baby, we can share a few insights that hopefully provide some reassurance. Long story short, sleep patterns will change as your baby grows and develops. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide to sleep, but there is the encouragement that, over time, babies generally sleep for longer and longer periods. (And one day they will be teenagers and you’ll have to wake them up a midday. True story!)

Baby sleep patterns

Babies have relatively short sleep cycles; only around 50-60 minutes for the first nine months. These cycles are made up of two sleep states; active and quiet. Each cycle starts with active sleep – the baby-equivalent of adults’ REM sleep. Like adults in REM sleep, babies wake more easily at this point. This means they are vulnerable to stimulus (like light, loud noises or hunger pangs) during their active sleep phase, and it’s also why our babies wake so often during the night. As challenging as broken sleep is for us parents, this active sleep state serves an important purpose for our babies. If babies slept as deeply as adults did for long periods of time, they could not signal their needs. In other words, babies are designed to wake easily so they can feed frequently. 

About halfway through the sleep cycle, young babies move from active to quiet sleep. Quiet sleep is characterised by slower, more rhythmic breathing, little movement and no eyelid fluttering. Babies are less likely to be woken by noise and other disturbances when they're in quiet sleep (which is at end of their sleep cycle). When quiet sleep is over, babies either begin the cycle again (by re-entering active sleep) or they wake up.  

As babies mature, quiet sleep begins to transform into distinct ‘slow wave’ or non-REM stages. Their sleep cycles begin to lengthen and they spend proportionately less time in active, or REM, sleep. 

If babies slept as deeply as adults did for long periods of time, they could not signal their needs.

Just when you think you’re on a roll, it all changes

It is important to keep in mind that babies’ sleep patterns change rapidly and unexpectedly during the first few months and there may not be a clear pattern of awake and sleep time for your baby. This is because the circadian systems that govern sleep-wake cycles are not connected during the first three to four months of a baby’s life. Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to ensure that the body carries out its essential functions and processes. The sleep-wake cycle is one such circadian rhythm and, when connected to the master clock in the brain, it ensures that the body knows when it is day and when it is night so that we can be awake and asleep accordingly.

Furthermore, the parts of a baby's brain that regulate attention and the ability to self-soothe are also not yet online. This means there's not much we can do to influence the sleep patterns of our babies during the first three to four months. In fact, it is not until infants are around one year old that a clear pattern emerges.

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Awake in the night... again

Although it makes sense for babies to sleep lightly and wake during the night, needing to feed or immature circadian rhythms are not the only things that wake them up. In fact, there are many reasons why a baby might be wakeful during the night and being aware of these can make it easier to read their cues, tune into them and practice reflective parenting (observing, reflecting on and then responding to the needs of our babies and children).

  • Discomfort or pain: This can range from a nappy that needs changing, a stuffy noise, feeling too hot or cold, a onesie that’s too tight, or teething.

  • Physical ailments: Fevers, ear infections, allergies, sore tummies and colic can all, understandably, make sleeping very difficult.

  • Developmental challenges: Believe it or not, our babies are so keen to develop and grow that it’s not unusual for them to practise skills like walking or crawling during their light sleep cycle. As they grow older (around 8-12 months), separation anxiety could also start to impact on their sleep.

  • Emotional challenges: Our babies are sensitive creatures who can sense change in the emotional temperature of our homes. Stressful events within the family and changes in familiar routines can all have an impact on our babies’ restful sleep.

  • Environmental circumstances: When bedtime routines are interrupted or too stimulating, our babies find it harder to settle. Also, too much sleep during the day or early evening can prevent a baby from getting a good night’s sleep

What can we do? Strategies that may support a baby's sleep patterns

There’s a never-ending scroll of information out there regarding ways to get babies to sleep – and you’ve probably noticed already, a lot of the advice is conflicting! We don’t have room here to go into all of that, but we will say this: these three keys are foundational to any healthy sleep strategy:

  1. Tune into your baby’s cues

  2. Remain emotionally available to your baby when they are distressed

  3. Use reflective parenting to think about what you can do to meet your baby's needs

There are many reasons why our babies might be wakeful during the night and being aware of these can make it easier to read our babies’ cues, tune into them and practice reflective parenting.

Here are some other helpful things to keep in mind when it comes to babies and sleep (and hopefully more of it!)

  • Tune into your baby’s cues of sleep readiness: Your baby may show signs of being ready for sleep by rubbing their eyes, yawning, looking away, having jerky limb movements, fussing and grizzling.

  • Provide clear cues of when it is day and when it is night: A quiet, dimly-lit room (compared to lights and noise) can help your baby to differentiate between day and night.

  • Create a ‘sleepy’ environment: Choose a place that will consistently be used for sleep, for example a cot, bassinet or a wahakura, and set it up in a quiet, unstimulating environment. Soothing white noise can be helpful but be sure to keep the volume down as a baby’s developing eardrums can be easily damaged.

  • Establish a bedtime routine: A soothing bedtime routine can help your baby transition from being awake to being asleep. For example, start with a bath, followed by a bedtime story, a lullaby and then a kiss goodnight. Placing your baby in their bed at the same time each night can also help to settle their circadian rhythms.

  • Provide a sleep toy or object: Help your baby find sleep associations that will always be there when they wake up during the night, for example a dummy, a blanket or their thumb.

  • Tune into your baby’s cues of “I'm not going to settle!”: Sometimes your baby may send cues that they are definitely not going to settle. If that happens, follow their lead and offer soothing strategies (for example singing, rocking or feeding if they’re sending hunger cues). There is also a difference between an intensely distressed cry and a fussy cry. A fussy cry might signal that your baby isn’t really stressed but is trying to settle themselves and, before long, they’re fast asleep again. Episodes like those are most likely to be only mildly stressful and important for resilience-building. Intense and distressed crying, on the other hand, signals greater needs. In these moments, your baby will require your help to regulate and soothe themselves until they feel secure enough to fall asleep again.

  • Provide enough time for sleeping: Daytime naps are important, so try to schedule two to three naps per day into your baby’s routine. Naps work best in quiet surroundings. Given that the sleep cycle of a baby is 50-60 minutes long, make sure that you provide enough time for your baby to sleep without potential interruption.

  • Be consistent: As much as possible, try to have consistent routines and try to have predictable responses to the various cues that your baby might be giving you.

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Parenting Place

For over 25 years, Parenting Place has been here offering support and advice to New Zealand parents. We think that with the right support, parenting any age and stage can be a relatively stress-free and fun experience. You're doing great!

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