As new parents, many wonders and unanswered questions can arise in relation to your baby, especially when it comes to their sleep needs, sleep rhythms and sleep behaviour. There is a natural reason for this, as babies’ needs and habits are quite different compared to adults.

This means that as parents, you must not only understand and learn about your new-born’s need for sleep but also the need to adapt your own sleep to this ever-changing pattern.


Your baby’s first year of sleep

During the first 12 months of your new-born’s life, the sleep needs and patterns will change pretty significantly. Unfortunately, infants have no sleep pattern at all, which can be a very challenging time for parents. It takes a few months before your baby gradually develops a more stable sleeping cycle. Then, it becomes much easier to plan when they should be awake or asleep. Every time your baby falls asleep, it begins its sleep cycle. To get through these challenging times, it’s useful to understand how babies; sleep patterns differ from adults.


Babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults

When we sleep, we go through different sleep cycles. Such a cycle consists of four distinct phases.

  • There is no REM phase in Phase 1. A fairly light sleep and therefore easily woken up.
  • There is no REM phase in Phase 2. A slightly deeper sleep than in the first phase. The body relaxes more, and the temperature of the body is slowly lowered along with the heartbeat.
  • There is no REM phase in phase 3. This is a deep sleep. The body completely relaxes, and you sleep soundly.
  • REM is the fourth phase. The REM phase is the active phase of sleep. Here you can dream, and the eyes will typically be active under the eyelids. The blood supply to the brain increases significantly. Once the sleep cycle is completed, we start over with the first stage, and this continues until we wake up.

The duration of each phase varies with each individual but also largely depends on their age. Adults will take approximately 90 minutes to go through the four stages that make up the sleep cycle. Babies go through all four phases in half the time. If you find that your baby typically wakes up after the first cycle, it is because they have not yet learned to transition into a new cycle. One way you can help your baby with this is through movement, as many babies are soothed by rocking movements, as it reminds them of the time spent in their mother’s womb. Here, a baby hammock with or without a motor can be a very good tool.


Your child’s sleep cycle

Children have significantly shorter sleep cycles and continue to cycle more often than adults. You will typically be awake for a short period between each sleep cycle, and the time varies from 2-30 seconds. Adults will not normally notice this brief awakening as we usually fall back asleep and begin a new sleep cycle. It can be more difficult for babies to go directly into the next sleep cycle, though, which increases the risk of waking up several times during the night. Below, we will review the most important developments for your baby’s sleep from the age of two months up to a year.


Sleep cycle of a two-month-old new-born

Infants have not yet developed their natural day-night circadian rhythms (“body clock”). Therefore, they are only determined by their need for food and presence. The sleep rhythm from the time the infant spends in the mother’s womb can have an impact on them and influence their new sleep cycle. If your baby is awake at night, it can be almost impossible to get them to sleep again. This is caused by an infant’s lack of ability to produce melatonin and cortisol, which are the most important hormonal substances that help with both sleep onset and regulating sleep patterns. The brain is simply not developed enough to do this, and therefore the infant does not experience the natural tiredness created by melatonin when it’s dark outside. In the period from 0–2 months, your baby will sleep 16–20 hours a day, and you would be able to influence their sleep rhythm at this stage.


Baby’s sleep cycle: 3-4 months old

The baby becomes more aware of where they are and of what is happening around them. They begin to be aware of their surroundings and get easily distracted, which can make it more challenging to fall asleep when wanted. Overall, your child will sleep significantly less than they did as a new-born. The production of hormonal substances such as melatonin and cortisol slowly begins to be formed, which leads to the creation of certain sleep habits.


Baby’s sleep cycle: Six months old

When your child is around six months old, you may start to notice a more structured sleep rhythm. Your child will probably sleep more at night than during the day, and you will find that the child will sleep for longer periods at a time. The child will also start to be more active during the waking hours. At night, you may find that your child sleeps more restlessly and may begin to move around in their sleep. This is completely normal, and you can usually help the child get back into a comfortable sleeping position.


Baby’s sleep cycle: 8-9 months old

At this age, your child will probably start to adapt to a more regular circadian rhythm. Your child will probably be more active both during waking hours and during sleep. You may find that your child sleeps very restlessly and that they may both laugh and cry in their sleep. Your child will also begin to dream during this time, which can lead to these more active sleep patterns. During this time, they will have a greater need for comfort, even when they are sleeping, and this is an opportunity for you to create close ties with your child.


Baby’s sleep cycle is 12 months old

When your child is around 12 months old, the need for sleep will gradually decrease to just 2-3 hours. They will be awake for most of the day and will become more active by crawling and walking around. The more active they are during the day, the more this will be reflected in their sleep at night. Keeping to a regular schedule with comforting bedtime routines helps them to regulate their biological clock and develop a healthy sleep pattern. This could be a regular bedtime story or song that you perform every night.


Children’s sleep patterns are easily affected by changes

All children are different, and you may find that the above does not suit your child, which is completely natural. The above are general trends in children's sleep development during their first year.  In addition, there may be other factors that affect sleep. For example, changes in everyday life such as divorces, illness, family expansion, moving and too many visits from others can all affect the child's sleep. Hopefully, you find these tips useful on the road to understanding and adapting to your child’s sleep patterns.