How babies sleep

How babies sleep

By Meg Faure

The statement “She sleeps like a baby!” takes on a whole new meaning when you become a parent!  Our expectations of how a baby sleeps may be very far off from reality. Unfortunately the truth usually only emerges a few months into parenthood – that sleep is one thing that will never be the same. The interesting part is that understanding how babies sleep holds the key to getting your baby to sleep.

Sleep cycles

During sleep, we move from deep sleep to light sleep. The period from deep sleep to light sleep and back into deep sleep is called a sleep cycle. When we are comfortable and calm, we do not wake during light sleep states, but stay calmly asleep. An adult’s sleep cycle is about 1 ½ hours long. A baby cycles into light sleep every 45 minutes to an hour (toddlers). If your baby is comfortable and calm and has learnt to self sooth she will link sleep cycles and sleep well.

If your baby wakes in the light sleep state it may be because she is hungry, uncomfortable or cold. If you have ruled out these causes of waking, it is likely that your baby has simply not learned to self soothe.

Self soothing

Research has proven that good sleepers are those babies who can self sooth at night. Self soothing usually involves touch or sucking. Try to encourage these self soothing strategies in your baby:

  • Sucking a dummy or a thumb – either method works to help babies sleep well.
  • Holding a soft toy, such as a bunny or teddy. Be consistent with the toy you offer at sleep time.
  • Feeling certain textures – your baby will probably show preference for a comforter or sleep blanky that has a specific texture – such as soft fleece or satin tags. Offer this consistently once you see a preference for it.
  • Some babies position their bodies or bang their legs to fall asleep. As much as this looks disruptive or uncomfortable, it can be soothing for babies.
  • Sounds such as humming can also sooth your little one. If she hums to herself before sleep, recognize this as a self soothing tool.

Sleeping ‘through’

This brings us to the top of mind question for most parents: “When can I expect my baby sleep through?”  Once your baby can self soothe and all her physical needs are met so that she is comfortable, your baby will be able to sleep through the night.

Sleeping through is defined as sleeping for 10 – 12 hours at night without waking. The reality is that few babies can do this until they are on a full solids diet, which includes protein. This full diet is only recommended from 6 months onwards. Thus prior to 6 months few babies will sleep for more than 10 hours at a stretch.
Having said that, little babies who are not disturbed at night may begin to stretch the length of time they sleep and may occasionally ‘sleep through’
Many of these ‘good sleepers’ will experience sleep disruptions as their nutritional needs change between 3 and 6 months.
Babies who have not learned to self sooth at all by 6 months old, such as those who depend on being breast or bottle fed to sleep or on being rocked to sleep, will continue to experience sleep disruptions and thus not sleep through.

The key to helping your baby to sleep ‘like a baby’ is:

  • Make sure her needs and comforts are met at night
  • Teach her to self sooth from at least 4 months onwards but consistently encouraging a self soothing tool.