6 Baby Sleep Facts You Need to Know
Sleep. It seems so normal and natural, doesn’t it? You’re tired, you close your eyes, and voilà – Dreamland, here you come.
Yet if you’re like many parents, you may be mystified by your baby’s sleep patterns. You thought if you remained calm (Baby can pick up on your stress levels), demand-fed your little one, and provided a healthy, relaxing environment, she’d cork off easily. Then over time, she’d stretch her sleeping periods longer and longer on a steady trajectory.
Yep. I know. That’s what I thought, too.
Then reality set in.
What’s a parent to do?
Why Baby Sleep is So Much Weirder than Adult Sleep
Sleep is sleep, right? Everybody needs it – even babies. (In fact, aren’t babies supposed to always be sleeping? How did my youngest manage to not get that memo?)
Yet if you’re like many parents, your little one’s sleep patterns may seem, well, downright weird.
My mother used to say of my littlest, “That young man has his watch on backward.” She was referring to my complaint that my son napped a huge portion of the day, then morphed into some sort of party animal at night.
There are thousands of books devoted to getting your baby to sleep so you aren’t a zombie yourself during the day. Obviously, as a society, we don’t understand infant sleep as much as we think we do.
Yet with a little investigation, you’ll discover that what you (and I) think of as weird when it comes to infant sleep may be normal, natural…and at times, even a lifesaver.
So before you hand in your Good Parent badge because you just can’t get little Jax to close his eyes for more than 50 minutes (more on that in a moment), keep the following in mind.
1) Your Baby Wakes Up More Often Than You Think
You may think your baby wakes up “constantly” at night. Surprise: she may actually be rousing more than you think. But she may not always let you know.
Here’s why: Babies often partially awaken while transitioning between sleep stages (to or from REM, for example). While some infants will simply go back to a deep sleep, others may need a little help with a feeding or just a gentle cuddle and a song.
How often your baby will fully rouse will depend upon a number of factors. Your baby’s age, whether or not she’s sick, how hungry she is on a given day, the temperature of the room, or just an “off night” can mean more full awakenings than usual.
Don’t worry: Eventually, your baby’s brain will learn to dip back down into sleep following partial wakings. After all, yours does. That’s right: even adults awaken partially during the night. Sometimes we remember it in the morning; other times, not at all.
Interesting, isn’t it?
2) Your Baby Really Can’t Tell the Difference Between Night and Day (at First)
As I mentioned earlier, my younger son “had his watch on backward” for the first eight weeks of his life. He seemed to want to be up all night long, then during the day he’d peacefully snooze through noise, activity, and even my gentle little nudges to try to get him more active during daylight hours.
If you’re experiencing the same thing, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with your baby –– and no, you’re not doing anything wrong. Experts say that newborns don’t have a developed internal signal to “shut off” during periods of darkness. Rather, they rely more or less exclusively on cues as they come: I’m hungry, I’m wet, nobody’s here and I’m afraid. These life-saving signals can come at any time of day or night.
Your baby’s body will naturally begin to produce more melatonin in response to darkness if you stick to a consistent schedule. (Melatonin is one of the hormones responsible for regulating sleep.) Try keeping lights lower as nighttime approaches, turning off the TV and other electronics in areas where the baby will be, giving a soothing bath and then putting Baby down for the night –– or at least for a couple of hours.
If you do need to go to your baby at night, turn on only a night light or a low-level light outside the room, experts advise.
3) Sleeping Helps Your Baby Learn
The right amount of sleep may keep you from going nuts, but it has an even more important function for babies, according to experts.
According to studies, a number of things happen to your baby’s brain while she sleeps. These include brain growth, memory organization, and the switchover from reflexive (automatic) to cortical (controlled) responses to her environment.
Experts believe these critically important developments are a large part of why newborns need a lot of sleep –– up to 17 hours per day during their first two months or so.
4) Babies Have a Much Shorter Sleep Cycle than Adults
We all move through different stages of sleep. By early childhood there are five of these stages. (Newborns are an exception, as they experience virtually no REM sleep periods.)
However, babies cycle through the stages of sleep more quickly than adults do. Initially, your baby’s sleep cycle will rush by in just 50-60 minutes. She will also experience both active sleep –– with increased breathing, twitches and sounds –– and quiet sleep, where she won’t seem to move much, if at all.
This rapid sleep cycling means more frequent full awakenings, but it should also mean more naps. While it will be some time before Baby’s sleep syncs with yours, try to nap when she does if at all possible. Or take turns with your partner getting up at night. Your baby’s sleep cycles will gradually lengthen until, at preschool age, she is cycling the same 90 minutes that you are.
5) Night Wakings May Have a Protective Function for Your Baby
Many ancient cultures involved babies sleeping with their mothers and feeding on demand during the night. But today’s expectations tend to be different. Because we want to lie down in our own bed and sleep a solid 7-8 hours, we hope Baby will want to do exactly the same thing.
But as every parent knows, that’s just not realistic. On the other hand, what you see as a nuisance and a hindrance to your own sanity-saving sleep may actually serve a protective function for your baby, according to some experts.
For example, night waking can be a response to sleep apnea, a period where your baby stops breathing for more than a few seconds. If your baby awakens and cries, she will draw oxygen quickly into her lungs. (Research shows that newborn infants who sleep more deeply are more prone to brief apnea episodes.)
Babies who wake more may also be more physically self-aware. They may more readily respond to hunger, wetness or the cold. By waking and crying, they get their needs met by an adult who can protect them.
So count this one as a blessing rather than a rather painful rite of passage for new parents. Your newborn is crying for a reason, and you’re the best person to help.
6) Your 6-Month-Old May (or May Not) Sleep Through the Night
If you believe the age-old truism, most babies should sleep through the night by three months.
Here’s some news that may seem daunting at first: according to some sleep experts, only about ⅔ of infants sleep through the night by six months of age.
Here’s the good news: if your baby doesn’t peacefully doze for a period of 8 hours before that time, there’s probably nothing wrong. The bottom line is that every baby is different, but a comparatively small percentage will allow you a solid 6-8 hours of sleep until that half-year mark.
As a personal aside, don’t hate me: my oldest child slept six hours through the night at eight weeks of age. And it wasn’t a fluke. She routinely slept that much or more, extending her sleeping time as she grew older. Yes, just like all the books with the annoyingly happy baby on the cover said she would.
On the other hand, well…I’ve already mentioned the littlest. We adore him, but we truly thought he’d still be waking tearfully three times a night at college age. (Ever stood over the crib and literally begged your baby to go to sleep? Yeah. So much that.)
By the way…he’s nowhere near college yet, but today, our little guy does sleep through the night.
Chances Are, Your Baby’s Sleep is Totally Normal
While we don’t take lack of sleep lightly around here, remember that all of the above sleep facts mean your baby may be more on track than you think.
Do work on your baby’s sleep strategies, but as tempting as it may be, don’t push the issue too hard during these early days. Believe it or not, these precious first months will pass in what you’ll come to see as the blink of an eye. Get in your 40 winks where you can, and know that in the meantime, your baby is developing right on schedule.