Understanding Baby Sleep Cycles & Patterns
Understanding your baby’s sleep cycles will enable you to lay the foundations for a healthy routine for years to come.
From what a baby’s sleep cycles looks like to how to settle your little one when they wake up, find out everything you need to know about baby sleep patterns below.
What is a sleep cycle?
Our sleep cycles change as we grow and develop. A newborn’s sleep cycles are around 20 to 50 minutes long.
Sleep cycles are made up of active and quiet sleep. During active sleep, your newborn will move around, open their eyes, cry, and breathe noisily.
During the quiet phase of sleep, they will lay still, and their breathing will be more even. It is normal for a newborn to wake between sleep cycles. As they grow older, they will eventually learn to self-settle.
A newborn baby’s sleep cycle is divided into two categories: REM (active sleep) and NREM (quiet sleep). In the first few of a child’s life, their sleep is split evenly between the two. As they grow and develop, their sleep cycles mature, and they slowly begin to spend less time in REM sleep.
Their sleep cycles slowly begin to look like an adult’s cycle, as they start to experience the three stages of NREM.
How does adult and baby sleep differ?
Adult sleep looks very different to a baby’s sleep. On average, adults sleep around seven hours a night in a single (largely uninterrupted) block of time. While a baby needs up to 18 hours of sleep every 24 hours which is broken up into multiple periods of time as they often wake between cycles.
By six months, babies will sleep around 13 hours a day. This is because they have not yet developed an efficient circadian rhythm which helps them to understand the difference between day and night.
Newborn sleep cycles
The newborn sleep pattern is unique. In the first few weeks, a newborn baby will sleep most of the time, with many sleeping 14-20 hours a day in two to three-hour bursts. Below, find two key reasons behind the newborn sleep cycle.
They haven’t established a circadian rhythm
Newborn babies don’t know the difference between day and night. It takes time for their body clock to kick in and until then, they will not understand when it’s time to sleep.
They have a small stomach
When a child is born, their stomach is around the size of a marble and by day 10, it’s the size of a golf ball. As a consequence of this, newborn babies need to be fed regularly. That’s why they wake between sleep cycles.
How long do newborn and baby sleep cycles last?
A newborn baby’s sleep cycle typically lasts 40 minutes. During this time, they will move through light and deep sleep.
As a baby grows and develops, their sleep cycles also mature. Over time, their sleep cycle gets longer, and the time spent in light sleep decreases. By the time we’re adults, we spend around 20-25% of the night in light sleep (compared to 50% in babies) and our sleep cycles last around 90-120 minutes (compared to 40 minutes in a newborn’s sleep cycle).
As a newborn’s sleep cycles increase in length, parents and caregivers can decrease their naps, as they can stay awake for longer periods of time.
When do newborns start sleeping longer at night?
As your child's circadian rhythm and sleep cycles mature (usually between the six to eight-week mark), they will begin to differentiate between night and day. This means, your baby will slowly begin to sleep for longer periods of time without disruption.
Types of baby sleep cycles
Newborn babies wake through the night because of their sleep cycles.
There are 2 types of sleep:
REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, also known as active sleep.
Non-REM sleep, also known as quiet or deep sleep.
Non-REM sleep is made up of four stages, while there is only one stage of REM sleep.
Babies make a lot of noise when they are in REM sleep because they do not have REM-sleep paralysis the way adults do. You will notice during the lighter, active REM sleep that your baby may start to move; their eyelids will flicker, their fingers and toes wriggle, they may open and close their eyes and mouth or kick their legs.
Older babies may even laugh and ‘practice;’ motor skills such as rolling, rocking on all fours, and even sitting. Babies can usually be woken more easily during this lighter sleep, so creating an ideal sleep environment is essential.
During quiet, deep or non-REM sleep, newborns are still. Their breathing is deep and regular. Babies may be able to sleep through more noise at this time or more difficult to wake during this deeper sleep.
What are the stages of a baby's sleep cycle?
Typically, newborn babies will drift through five sleep stages during a sleep cycle. Understanding these sleep cycles will enable you to help your child to get a good night’s sleep.
Stage 1: Drowsiness as baby starts to drift off to sleep.
Stage 2: REM sleep. This is the stage where brain activity peaks. You may see your baby’s eyelids flicker, their eyes move around under closed eyelids, their limbs and face may twitch, or they may kick their legs and open and close their eyes.
Stage 3: Light sleep, in which breathing becomes more regular and sleep becomes less active.
Stages 4 and 5: Deep non-REM sleep, where breathing is deep and regular, and your baby becomes more likely to sleep through noise.
How do I settle my baby between sleep cycles?
Understanding your child’s sleep cycles will enable you to help settle them. For example, babies will often open their eyes, move around, and make sounds during REM sleep. You might mistake this for them waking up.
By giving your child space and time to move through their sleep cycles, you reduce the risk of waking them up prematurely. Over time, they will also learn how to self-settle and self-soothe. Our award-winning Swaddle Up™ is designed to encourage this, thanks to its arms-up™ wings.
Baby sleep cycle length by age
The amount of sleep a child needs to feel rested depends on their age. Below, we’ve broken down the average amount of sleep a baby needs according to their age.
At Love To Dream™, we know that every child is different, and we’re committed to helping you to find the right solution for your family. With you at every step, Love To Dream™ believes today’s little dreamers are the shapers of tomorrow. For further advice from our experts, visit our Sleep Library.