Infant & Toddler Sleep

If you are like most new parents, you probably often find yourself tired, even exhausted, especially after colds & illnesses, developmental spurts, or other “perturbations” – disturbances – that affect your child’s, and hence your, sleep.

These disturbances often start during pregnancy, when the growing mother-to-be’s belly makes positioning for sleep more tricky, whilst also putting pressure on her bladder causing frequent trips to the restroom; many such wakings and position changes also affecting the partner.   Lots of stories abound that this is ‘nature taking its course’ preparing a mother and father for late nights and part of that may be true, but late nights aren’t necessarily what the disturbed sleep is about once baby arrives.  In reality, it’s more likely about the parents’ biorhythms not being in sync with the baby’s (as a baby’s biorhythms aren’t at all like that of an adult!).

Adult vs. Infant Sleep Explained

    1. Newborns spend 45-50% of their time sleeping in REM sleep, also known as “light sleep” or “active sleep”.  This is the time when the eyes are fluttering in unison, breathing is irregular, and there can be facial twitches and/or squirming & getting “into position” for sleep.  Newborns also spend 10-15% in transitional sleep and only 35-45% of their sleep in non-REM sleep.  Adults in contrast spend only about 20% of their sleeping time in REM sleep.
    2. Babies enter sleep or fall asleep differently than adults.  Adults usually fall quickly into non-REM sleep (which is when you cannot be easily woken) whereas Babies usually enter sleep with a short 20 REM sleep followed by a period of transitional sleep, finally entering non-REM Sleep thereafter.   If a baby is disturbed before he enters the non-REM state (when body heavy, eyes firmly closed, face at rest), he/she will easily awaken.
    3. Once asleep, the cycles between the phases in newborns & children are shorter than in adults: REM occurring every 50-60 minutes in an infant, compared to every 90 minutes in an adult.  This means babies not only fall asleep differently and spend more time in REM sleep but also they can have twice as many REM periods compared to his parent or older sibling!   This means awakenings are twice as likely to happen in an infant compared to an adult (as it’s easier to be woken up in between sleep cycles).
    4. Newborn babies have no concept of Day & Night; they sleep 14-18 hours per day as/when they need sleep.  As they gradually have more times of wakefulness (around 3 months) the differentiation begins.

Getting a baby to fall asleep & stay asleep

If a baby drops into sleep first with a 20 minute REM period, followed by a transitional period, leaving him alone from the start probably won’t work for all babies.  What each baby needs will be entirely dependent on his/her personality (some will need more attention, some less, some will want to stay with Mom & Dad in the evening and will want to go to bed at the same time as them, others will be fine going to bed early, leaving alone time for his/her parents). This is as true for falling ASLEEP or “settling” as staying asleep.

Just like rhythms help an adult (with a pattern that might include a transition from living & awake space to sleeping space, changing clothes, washing up/brushing teeth, getting into bed & setting alarm, reading, etc.), rhythms will also help babies, toddlers and children.  We’d never say to an adult “time for bed” and then expect them to just fall asleep when they get into their bed, so why are we expecting it from babies, infants & children?  Think rhythm and stick with it.  For babies, infants AND children!  When it comes to babies & toddlers, it doesn’t necessarily matter WHEN you get ready for bed, it’s what you do leading up to it that counts (timing more important as kids get older and have to be somewhere in the morning).  Build a rhythm around what works for your family.

Helping a baby fall asleep

Breastfeeding satisfies several needs:  thirst, hunger, immune development (the milk) + need to suckle & be loved (also eye development).   This means that a mother who is breastfeeding (which also helps her sleep synchronise with her baby’s sleep), can often satisfy any need a baby might have just by breastfeeding (as several things satisfied simultaneously).   This means it’s okay to breastfeed a baby to sleep — in fact suckling helps a baby fall asleep, as do the hormones in mother’s milk.

If you have chosen not to breastfeed or cannot breastfeed, anything that “mimics” the different things breastfeeding provides, can help babies sleep: paced bottle-feeding, being held/rocked, suckling on a finger/pacifier, warmth & feeling secure, etc.  This means that depending on the reason baby woke, either parent or carer could help baby get back to sleep.  As the baby grows and develops his/her needs at bed time will change as will what you as a parent provides.

What disturbs a sleeping baby?

So, now you’ve gotten baby to sleep, you want him to say asleep!  If your baby is more prone to wake up at night, what might wake him up?  If during REM or transitional sleep baby:

  • is Thirsty or Hungry
  • Needs to suckle or be held/loved
  • is Hot or Cold
  • Feels Room too dark, too bright (or sudden change)
  • Feels Room too loud, too quiet or sudden noise change (creaking floors, birds chirping, someone comes home/leaves/goes to bed)
  • is unwell, uncomfortable (including peed/pooed or needs to), teething
  • Wonders where is Mom? Dad?  Not there, where?
  • Rolled over onto his tummy and cannot roll back
  • Needs to communicate something else to his parents (oh I rolled over, look mamma!   Ohhh Daddy is home tonight but wasn’t yesterday, ooh if I cry Daddy comes! Oh I had a dream about x, y, z, I remember! etc.)

Baby may wake up.   The list of needs is endless.

So parents need to find ways to eliminate causes of wakings.   This said, in the early months, the first two cannot be eliminated:  babies are growing at an alarming rate so they need to be in their parents’ arms A LOT.  They also eat/drink a lot and pee/poo a lot.  So waking is physiologically expected in an infant and “sleeping through”, whatever your definition, is unusual.

My baby falls asleep fine but then wakes up an hour after I go to bed and I’m exhausted! Help!

If your baby goes to bed before you, when you go to bed you may disturb his/her sleep so that he either wakes up or wakes up shortly thereafter,  right when you are falling into non-REM sleep (when it’s really rough to get up).  If this is the case, you may want to adjust your bedtime rhythm to avoid this “exhaustion-causing pattern”.  Some parents decide to go to bed earlier.  Others keep baby with them (sling/carrier, bouncy chair, etc.) and go to bed at the same time.   Even others maintain the earlier bed time, but after their own bed time rhythms they wake the baby up (when she’s in REM sleep) for a dreamfeed or snuggle, then “going to bed after” (meaning baby less likely to wake up right when the parents fall asleep).

Best place to sleep?

So where’s the best place for babies and toddlers to sleep?  The best place is where everyone gets sleep!  For infants that is usually as close to Mom & Dad as possible.  For instance,  in a safe bed-sharing or co-sleeping arrangement, in a bed next to the parents’ bed, or in a bed in the parents’ room.  As they get older, each family can figure out what works best:  long-term bed/room sharing, a separate room, in with siblings, separate room but with bed on the floor next to Mom & Dad or a big bed in that room for an adult to use, etc.   The most important is to find what works and what gets everyone adequate sleep!

Sleep as they grow up

Luckily, a baby’s sleep gradually becomes more “adult-like” as the days, weeks and months progress and as baby develops.  And just like an adult, some days sleep will be better than others.  For the most part, if your infant, toddler and later preschooler or youth, feels safe and secure, sleep will figure itself out.  And by the time your child is a teen, you’ll be complaining that they sleep too much, when the previous decade and a bit you complained they slept too little!

More information about sleep

Visit the following websites:

Or borrow the following books from our Library or order from our bookshop

  • Three in a Bed
  • Sleeping with your Baby (coming soon)
  • No Cry Sleep Solution
  • Nighttime Parenting
  • The Attachment Parenting Book