Baby sleep may seem like a mystery to most parents. When babies wake up multiple times throughout the night, it’s easy for parents to become sleep deprived. Here’s the thing about infant sleep cycles; newborns and infants haven’t developed their circadian rhythm yet. Although it’s normal for a baby to have irregular sleep, it can be a very difficult time for a family. This can leave a family feeling helpless; but, learning more about infant sleep cycle stages may help.
Most infants need about 14-20 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period but it’s usually scattered throughout the day and night. As the circadian rhythm is developed, they will learn to sleep in longer stretches of time. Establishing a great bedtime routine will help babies get on track to a good night of sleep.
Just like adults, babies have different stages of their sleep cycle. Newborns typically have just two stages: REM and NREM. Around 3 months of age, a baby’s sleep begins to mature. Older infants have REM sleep and four stages of NREM sleep.
During a sleep cycle babies will go from REM to NREM stage 1, then 2, then 3, and finally stage 4. While coming out of deep sleep, the cycle will go backwards from 4 to 1 and back to REM.
REM stands for rapid eye movement. During this stage, the baby’s eyes move back and forth while they are still closed. This is a very light stage of sleep and it is also when dreams occur. Babies spend about half of their sleep time here in the REM sleep cycle stage.
This stage is also called the “active sleep” stage. From the outside, a baby might seem like they are waking up. They make small movements, their breathing speeds up, or they move their mouths. They might even react to dreams by laughing or crying.
Oftentimes, parents might pick up their baby to soothe them during REM sleep which ends up waking the baby up. A certified Sleep Consultant will be able to help parents identify the difference between active sleep and babies being awake.
The NREM or non-rapid eye movement sleep cycle stage is also known as “quiet sleep”. There are four sub-stages of NREM sleep. Stage 1 is drowsiness, stage 2 is light sleep, and stages 3 and 4 are deep sleep.
Let’s take a closer look at each stage!
This stage of NREM sleep is when a baby is drowsy, but not asleep. They’re dozing off and their eyelids are heavy. They might even be opening and closing their eyes.
The second stage of NREM sleep is very light sleep. Babies will startle very easily and will move with sudden sounds.
Stages 3 and 4 look very similar from a parent or caregiver’s perspective. When babies are in a deep sleep stage, they are very still. Sometimes, and especially during the newborn weeks, it might be difficult to wake a baby from deep sleep.
Each sleep cycle stage varies in time and sometimes babies may skip a stage or two. Sleep isn’t always consistent and that is normal. With a good routine and some patience, babies and parents can learn how to manage sleep cycles more effectively.
Infant sleep can be difficult to navigate, but you don’t have to do it alone. Sleep consultants are a great resource for parents to further their understanding of their child’s sleep cycles. From sleep cycle basics, to sleep training, and beyond, a sleep consultant can help.