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Do you understand what’s happening with your baby’s sleep cycles?

Sleep or lack thereof may be the most talked-about topic among new parents. Even though babies sleep a lot, up to 16 hours a day how long they stay asleep at any given stretch can vary greatly, and babies are notorious for keeping mum dad up all night. But do you understand what’s going on during their sleep and how their sleep cycles develop?

Baby’s like us have two different types of sleep cycles. R.E.M. Sleep Cycle and Non-REM sleep cycle. But unlike adults, babies sleep is sporadic, and babies spend a lot more time in R.E.M. sleep cycle than adults do. A baby can spend up to 50% of their sleep in R.E.M. sleep compared to adults who spend less than 20% of their time in R.E.M. sleep. During developmental leaps, babies can spend even more time in R.E.M. sleep cycle.

Babies will cycle through different stages of sleep every 40-60 minutes. R.E.M. sleep cycle or rapid eye movement sleep phase is when active dreaming takes place. It’s what I call the limbo land between awake and asleep, and it is typically when your baby will make noise, grunt, groan, and maybe have a little bit of a cry out. During this phase of sleep, you will notice twitching, startling or jerking movements. R.E.M sleep cycle is associated with thought processing, the ability to retain and reuse information and social and emotional skills. Basically, anything cognitive function happens during your R.E.M. sleep cycle. Imagine that the R.E.M. sleep cycle is the stage of sleep where your baby’s brain is taking all the information they have learned throughout the day, organising compartmentalising, and sorting it out. The more they are learning, the more R.E.M. sleep cycle they need. Parents can often confuse this phase of sleep with their baby waking and needing assistance or reassurance, and often this intervention can cause them to wake entirely and be unable to get back to sleep.

The Non-REM sleep cycle is a deeper phase of sleep. Non-REM sleep consists of four stages drowsiness, light sleep, deep sleep and very deep sleep. Very little dreaming goes on during this time, and the baby’s motions and breathing slow down. This sleep phase is associated with physical development, where their body regrows tissue, builds bones and muscle and strengthen their immune system. It’s where your baby’s body gets the rest it needs to grow and thrive.

Typically when babies fall asleep, they go through waves of sleep. The first cycle is very quick R.E.M sleep. Babies then quickly drop into a very light deep sleep cycle; over the next 20-40 minutes, they will cycle through the deeper Non-R.E.M phase of sleep. At around 40 minutes during the day and 1 hour at night, your baby will transition into another R.E.M. sleep cycle for about 10-20 minutes before drifting back into the deeper Non-R.E.M sleep phase again

If your baby associates feeding, rocking or cuddling with R.E.M. sleep, they will expect this every time they enter into this phase of sleep. Remember that young babies can spend 50% of their sleep in R.E.M. sleep cycle, so if they associate this with you, then you will be missing a lot of Zzzzz’s yourself.

Let’s put this into perspective. Imagine if you rock cuddle or feed your baby to sleep every time they need a nap or at the beginning of the night. You will likely wait until they get drowsy or are asleep before transferring them into the cot. When your baby is very young, this can work well, and everyone is getting sleep, but as they grow, they become aware of patterns and associations, and you are teaching them that in order to bring on sleep they need to be rocked to sleep so when you continue to do this beyond three months of age you baby becomes aware of these associations to go to sleep.

When that happens, you’ve transferred them into the cot during the lighter phase of the deep non-R.E.M sleep cycle, and at this point, their brain is not consciously aware of that transition. So typically, when they rouse into the next R.E.M. sleep cycle, their little brain pretty much picks up exactly where it left off, and if everything that was there then is not here now, they’ll wake themselves up and think. Ahhhh Mum, where are you? Where am I? Where’s what put me to sleep in the first place?

Typically what a parent will do now is pick them back up and put them back in the position that they were when they went to sleep and hope they can get them back into another deep sleep cycle. Before the 4-months sleep regression, this method may work well, but what happens is the more often you put your baby to sleep in this way, the more you reinforce to them that that environment is where they need to be to fall asleep or link sleep cycles. You are teaching them that this is their bed, so when their Circadian Rhythm regulates at approximately four months, they learn that your arms are their bed and the cot is somewhere that they wake up in, cry and are put back into their bed.

Imagine if you fell asleep in your bed and woke up on the floor. Are you likely to go back to sleep? This is the same for babies. If they fall asleep in one place and wake in another, they are unlikely to fall back to sleep. When teaching a baby how to sleep, it’s better to start as you mean to go on rather than fix it later.

Establishing a good bedtime routine during the day and at night time from early on can help your baby become familiar with these positive sleep behaviours. Remember, routine is repetition. The more we do something, the more we learn it and the easier it becomes. If we routinely cuddle to sleep, then that is what your baby will learn.

A good bedtime routine can be as simple as

A top-up feed if needed

A bedtime story

Then a nappy change

Into their sleeping bag or swaddle

Pick up and cuddle while you get the room ready

Darken the room

Turn on white noise and then a

Final cuddle with shushing or song for about 1-2 minutes before transitioning to bed calm and awake.

Once your baby is in the cot you can allow them a brief amount of time to fuss or cry to see if they can drift off to sleep unsupported but if this fussing or crying becomes agitated, you can go and support them and assist them with gentle touch soothing words and aim to keep them in the cot.

Starting young with a bedtime routine almost guarantees that as your baby matures, they will learn that their bed is their bed and not your arms. The more you practice this with your baby, the more familiar this will become for them, and the easier they will find it to go to sleep and link sleep cycle in the cot as they grow. If your baby has already learnt some negative sleep associations, then changes to this may be stressful and confusing at first, but your whole family will benefit from your baby learning that it’s ok to fall asleep in their bed.

Need help with establishing a positive bedtime routine for your little one book in for a discovery call HERE

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