How A Baby’s Sleep Works

Yes, restful sleep is important for everyone, including babies. This doesn’t mean that babies must sleep through the night, however! Let’s look at sleep itself in more detail, because this will help you understand what you can reasonably expect from your baby or toddler, and why your child’s sleep patterns might differ from what you were expecting.

There are two main types of sleep in humans:

  1. Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) or quiet sleep
  2. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or active sleep

There are also fairly repetitive, typical stages of sleep, which include:

Stage 1

This is a relatively light transition period, characterised by very slow theta brain waves. If awakened during this stage, it feels as though you haven’t yet slept.

Stage 2

In this stage, there are bursts of rapid, rhythmic brain wave activity, body temperature starts to decrease and the heart rate slows.

Stage 3

This is a transition phase from light sleep to very deep sleep.

Stage 4

This deep sleep stage is characterised by delta brain waves. Bed-wetting and sleep-walking both occur during this stage.

Stage 5

This stage consists of REM sleep. There is an increase in respiration rate and brain activity, but muscles are more relaxed. Dreaming occurs during this stage of sleep.

Sound insights for sleep sceptics

An electro-encephalogram (EEG) shows that we cycle through these stages four to five times each night, in fairly typical, but not fixed order. An EEG also shows that an adults’ sleep cycle is about 90 minutes, while a baby’s lasts only about 50 minutes. In addition, adults seem to enter deep sleep more easily than babies and children do. On average, babies spend 50% (or about eight hours in each 24 hour period) of sleep in REM sleep, and 50% (a further eight hours) in NREM sleep every day. In contrast, adults spend about 80% (or 6–7 hours in each 24 hour period) in NREM sleep and only 20% (about one hour) in REM sleep. All of this boils down to the fact that babies have more periods of light sleep than adults, and more dream sleep, in which they are more likely to be restless and wake up.

Given all this, it would be completely understandable if you think that adults and babies are not very compatible as far as sleep goes! In my blog ‘The significance of sleep ‘incompatibility between parents and babies’, I take a closer look at why this may be… and show you how to translate this information into a positive parenting experience.

You can also read a lot more about the topic if you buy our 56 page downloadable Baby and Toddler Sleep Guide. It deals in detail with just about any type of sleep problem you can name!