Baby Sleep Patterns 101

We all know the expression “sleeping like a baby.” And as the parent of a newborn or infant, the term has probably taken on a whole new meaning for you—one that’s very different than an entire night of restful, uninterrupted slumber.

While it’s true that babies need a lot of sleep (on average, 16 hours a day for infants during the first 4 to 6 months), they also need to wake often to eat. If you need help getting back to sleep after the 3am feed, we have some tips and tools for you to check out.

But have you ever wondered what’s happening with your baby’s little brain and body when she’s snoozing? Turns out, baby sleep patterns are pretty similar to adults, but with a couple of key differences.

Like all people, your baby cycles through phases of sleep, going through drowsiness, then light sleep, then deep sleep, and finally into REM (dream) sleep, where the cycle starts all over again.

Cycling through the phases of sleep is something your little one has been doing for a while now, in fact. Since about the time you were 6 or 7 months pregnant, he’s been able to dream while snuggled up in your womb.

In non-dream sleep, which consists of both light and deep sleep (and is probably where the expression “sleeping like a baby” comes from), your little one will lie very still, breathing deeply and regularly. He may make small sucking movements with his mouth and can even give a sudden whole-body start. Don’t worry if you see your baby doing this. They’re called hypnagogic startles, they’re perfectly normal, and they happen in older kids and adults as well—you may have even noticed it happen to you as you’re just about to drop off to sleep.

While everyone cycles through non-dream sleep (whether in the light or deep sleep phases), it occurs in short bursts rather than a continuous flow in newborns. Throughout the first month of your baby’s life, his non-dream sleep will gradually become more continuous and his startles will reduce.

The dream sleep phase (which is also known as rapid eye movement, or REM sleep) differs significantly from non-dream sleep. Both babies and adults go through this phase about 5 times a night, and it’s actually quite easy to tell when your kiddo is in it. You’ll be able to see his eyes dart back and forth underneath his eyelids, breathing will be irregular, and his body will remain still except for some occasional twitches. Dream sleep is super important for your rapidly growing and developing baby, as it is believed to be the time when his brain “files away” all the experiences he’s had during the day, committing them to memory. It also represents another difference between how babies and adults sleep. While teenagers and adults spend about 25 percent of their time asleep in the dream sleep phase, newborn babies spend 50 percent, and premature babies can spend upwards of 80 percent of their time asleep in the dream sleep phase. This drops to 33 percent by age 3 and reaches adult levels between 10 to 14 years.

Baby Sleep Trainer Natalie Willes says, “Learning about your baby’s sleep cycle empowers you with knowledge. This type of information builds the foundation for helping you make sound choices around how to manage any potential sleep issues that may come up in the future.”

If you’d like to know more about how your little one’s sleep changes during the first year of his life, check out our article titled My Baby Won’t Sleep (Common Sleep Struggles). And if you’re struggling to get the quality zzz’s you need, read about how you can set yourself up for a more restful night or take a look at some strategies for getting your little one to sleep all night long.