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Understanding the Sleep Cycles of Babies

Babies have natural sleep cycles, much like adults. However, their sleep cycles differ from adults in length and order. And as any new parent can attest, a baby’s sleeping habits can be unconventional, at best.

A baby’s sleep cycle begins - once you’re able to get them to sleep, that is - with what is known as an active phase. The active phase is also known as the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase, being quite similar to the REM sleep stage that adults experience, and is when you’ll notice your baby shifting; their eyes moving and their breathing irregular.

A newborn will spend around 50% of the time that they’re asleep in active sleep. You probably wish that after your bub goes to sleep they would just stay asleep. Unfortunately, babies get hungry - their stomachs are tiny - and they’ll need to eat frequently to keep functioning.

Because of the nature of their sleep cycles (being in active sleep so much), babies are lighter sleepers than adults. Be warned, active sleep is the stage that your baby is most likely to wake up in.

Following this is deep, or quiet, sleep. During this phase your little one will breathe rhythmically and move less. Deep sleep is the end of the sleep cycle, which means your baby will either wake up or, ideally, stay sleeping and return to active sleep.

For the first few weeks of life, babies will have short sleep cycles, spending around 20-30 minutes in each stage. Until the age of 3-4 months, they’ll need around 16 hours of sleep each day, which they’ll take in short naps. All babies develop differently though, so don’t be alarmed if your little one is slightly above or below this number.

As your bub gets a little older they’ll need to sleep less, with longer cycles. By 2 months, your baby might only need 12 hours sleep each day. It can take some time for your baby to build up to a solid 8-12 hours sleep with no wakefulness, but hang in there, those days are coming.

By 6 months your baby might even be able to sleep for several hours uninterrupted (wouldn’t that be nice). Your bub will will have developed sleep stages that more closely resemble that of an adult, with longer sleep cycles and less time in active sleep.

You might even feel like your baby is ready to consolidate it’s naps and can sleep overnight without feeding. Check in with your doctor to make sure that’s not just wishful thinking and that your baby is indeed ready for that big step.

Don’t stress if your baby isn’t where you think they should be in terms of their sleeping patterns. Babies are unpredictable, they can be challenging, and they certainly don’t respect even the best intentioned schedules or programs.