Pairing the words “baby” and “sleep” can evoke strong emotions. Those who have had limited contact with little ones might interpret this word-combination as implying deep and prolonged slumber. For others, this union of words may elicit memories of prolonged periods of chaotic sleep (or what can feel like no sleep at all). Coping with the way babies sleep can be difficult. It’s not that babies don’t sleep. In fact, they sleep more than at any other stage of life. It’s more an issue of when they sleep. Newborns start by sleeping and waking around the clock. This is not always easy for parents. There is even research suggesting that in adults repeatedly waking at night can feel as bad as getting hardly any sleep regarding attentional skills, fatigue levels and symptoms of depression.
As to why infants wake at night, this is best explained by thinking about the two things that govern our sleep: the homeostatic and circadian processes. The crux of the homeostatic process is the straightforward idea that the longer we have been awake the greater our sleep drive (and the more sleepy we feel). It may take an adult an entire day to build up enough sleep drive to fall asleep at bedtime, but an infant may only need an hour or two of wakefulness before being able to drift off to sleep. The second process is circadian, which works like a clock. Adults typically feel more awake during the morning hours and sleepy at night, regardless of when we last slept. In very young babies this process is not yet developed. This means that sleep is more likely to occur at different points across the 24-hour day.
Practically speaking, the immaturity of these two processes mean that a newborn baby is expected to wake at night: they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do! They start life with small stomachs which need to be filled regularly so your child can gain strength and stay hydrated, so it’s a good thing that they are waking regularly to feed. As hard as disturbed sleep can be for caregivers, a waking baby is a good thing. But how long might this continue? The parenting mantra “this too shall pass” is true when it comes to dealing with certain aspects of a baby’s sleep. Night wakings typically become less frequent as an infant age and sleep changes in other ways throughout a person’s life. For example, sleep length reduces and there are changes in sleep architecture (or composition of Rapid Eye Movement, REM, and Non-Rapid Eye Movement, NREM, sleep). A premature baby’s sleep cycle might take just 45 minutes, whereas an adult can be double that at 90 minutes. Other changes also occur; for example, whereas babies’ sleep cycles start with REM-like sleep, adults start with NREM sleep.
For some parents, knowing that sleep changes throughout life are enough to help them cope with an infant’s night awakenings. In fact, sleep education alone can help some parents to deal with infant sleep. Other parents want more detailed information, such as about babies’ sleep schedules, bedtime routines, sleep problems, sleep safety, sleep environment, naps, sleep training, and special circumstances. We provide all this information, and more, on our website, where physicians, psychologists, and researchers from the Pediatric Sleep Council have also answered hundreds of questions about sleep via video and text. Also, on Baby Sleep Day, we will be available to answer your individual questions via our Facebook page.
Remember: sleep matters. Experts agree that sleep is essential for health, growth and general development. It is important not just for babies, but for parents too. If we can improve sleep within a family, and create a happy association between the words “baby” and “sleep”, then the Pediatric Sleep Council and Baby Sleep Day have achieved their goal.
Alice Gregory is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her book, Nodding Off, will be published by Bloomsbury Sigma in June 2018. Erin Leichman is a senior research psychologist at St Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, and executive director of the Pediatric Sleep Council. Jodi Mindell is a professor of psychology and director of graduate psychology at St Joseph’s University and associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She is chair of the Pediatric Sleep Council’s board of directors.
Credit: Alice Gregory, Erin Leichman, Jodi Mindell for The Guardian, 1 March 2018.