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What are the types of baby sleep and why should you know about them?

Its 4AM. You should have been asleep at least four hours ago but you’re still awake. Your throat is raw from all the jingles. You’ve even run out of cat videos to watch on YouTube.

You want to sleep. But Bub doesn’t.

There are two types of sleep. Rapid eye movement sleep (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.

REM is ‘active’ sleep, and is characterized by twitches, jerks and (as the name suggests) rapid eye movements. Scientists believe the purpose of REM sleep in babies is to provide sufficient stimulation to help develop the central nervous system of babies.

The non-REM is quiet sleep. During this time, breathing will be slow and regular (Gina Ford). While non-REM sleep is fully developed in full-term babies, it still does not go through cycles that an adult or an older child goes through. Adults have these two distinct phases.

Another school of thought says infants display a third type of sleep in the first few weeks of life called ‘indeterminate’ sleep (Michael Rutter) which is ‘poorly organized sleep’ or the type which caregivers aren’t able to fit into either predefined category. Good news: it phases off completely by three months.

Newborn Babies (0-4m) spend almost 50% of their time in REM sleep, and 35-45% in non-REM;
40% by 6 months. These proportions continue to change and by eight months, quiet (non-REM) sleep is almost twice the amount of REM. 30% REM by three years.

By 10 years of age, children develop proportions similar to adults of 20% REM and 80% non-REM.
At 3-4 months, babies are physiologically able to sleep through the night. But 70% of babies actually do. 16% sleep through the night at 6 months and 10% take much longer (Michael Rutter).

Why you will need to know this:

1. During REM, which will be 50% of your baby’s sleep, your baby will twitch and jerk, and their eyes will rapidly move under their lids. Their body will also be using more energy.

2. As REM sleep provides stimulation for brain development in infants, babies that are present with sufficient and interesting visual stimuli to explore in the early weeks while awake will spend less time in REM sleep (Shaffer & Kipp).

3. Your child might wake up or start another sleep cycle at the end of the cycle

4. Parents of older children do not normally hear when their children wake up after one sleep

5. Understand your child’s cycle to understand when he or she needs to settle themselves or when they might truly need you. This is unique for every child and you need to understand, with practice and observation, your child’s cues.

6. This information is particularly useful in the 12-week period of your child’s life, when he hasn’t developed a distinct pattern of light and quiet sleep

Sources: Michael Rutter (1987), Gina Ford (2012), Shaffer & Kipp (2010)