This post is written in collaboration with Sovende Børn.
Moonboon works closely with the NGO, Sovende Børn (in English: Sleeping Children) and their team of specialists, to provide updated, relevant advice and guidance on children's and babies' sleep. Read more about Sovende Børn at the bottom of the post.
WHAT IS NORMAL BABY SLEEP?
When your baby refuses to give in to sleep, when your baby only falls asleep when breastfeeding, or when your baby has a restless sleep, as a parent you may have doubts about whether your child's sleep pattern is normal or whether you are doing something wrong.
However, what exactly defines "normal baby sleep"? How much sleep does your baby normally need? When will your baby be able to fall asleep unassisted? And when is your baby in the deep sleep phase that many professionals describe as being particularly important?
Below we will try to offer a little insight into what years of research and experience have taught us about normal baby sleep, and what you as parents might think about when you're on that sixth cup of coffee and sleep feels elusive.
When is your baby in the deep sleep phase?
A basic understanding of the different stages of sleep can be a huge help to many parents.
If we start by looking at the baby's sleep biology, most parents will already experience a huge relief. In fact, a baby's sleep cycle is about 40-55 minutes long. That is somewhat shorter than your own sleep cycle as an adult. However, during this short amount of time, your baby gets through all the different stages of sleep he or she needs to develop, including deep sleep.
Remember! All children are different. Some children go through entire sleep in 30-35 minutes – and that is perfectly normal.
Facts Sleep biology
The different stages of sleep are the same for all people, but the way in which they are composed (sleep architecture) differs depending on your age.
● NREM1 = very light sleep. You are not "really" asleep yet and are still conscious. Adults may take a sip of water, go for a pee, or tuck themselves in under the duvet. It is also referred to as "light waking" when it occurs at night.
● NREM2 = light sleep. You are asleep but can be woken by even the slightest disruption.
● NREM3 = deep sleep. At this stage, it is unpleasant to be awakened.
● NREM4 = very deep sleep. Now, it is difficult to wake the person and it feels uncomfortable to be woken up.
● REM = dream sleep. Can be easily awakened.
Most people can tell when a child is sleeping heavily (NREM3/4).
The child lies completely still, you can touch them and maybe even move them without them reacting significantly. You may be able to see and hear that their breathing is quite heavy, calm, and slow.
When the child has reached the light phase of sleep (NREM1/2 and REM), however, breathing will be faster, perhaps even alternating. The child will be more "active", moving around, and you may often think that they are waking up or that they are having a "restless sleep".
A new-born baby's sleep cycle is about 40-50 minutes long and looks as follows:
● The sleeping new-born baby falls directly into the REM sleep phase.
● Next, the new-born baby moves into the NREM3 and NREM4 phases of sleep.
● The new-born baby goes back to the REM sleep phase.
Now the baby's sleep cycle is complete and a new one can begin.
When your baby is approximately 2-6 months old, he or she will have two new sleep phases: NREM1 and NREM2. Parents will often find that their baby's sleep becomes different, more difficult, you might say, and that their baby needs (much) more help falling asleep.
The reason is simply that the baby is now experiencing the easy "fall asleep" kind of sleep, which it has never had before. For some children, it may seem like they don't want to give into sleep, but it is more about the fact that they simply aren't able to yet. At least, not without help.
From 2 to 6 months onwards, your baby's sleep cycle is still about 40-50 minutes long:
● The child starts in the NREM1 sleep phase and slips into the NREM2 sleep phase, IF the child is not disturbed and gets the sleep support it needs.
● The child then switches to the NREM3 and NREM4 sleep phases.
● The child now returns to the NREM2 and NREM1 sleep phases.
● The child enters the REM sleep phase.
● The child ends in the NREM1 sleep phase.
Now the baby's sleep cycle is complete and a new one can begin.
The younger the child, the more of the child's sleep takes place in REM and deep NREM sleep phases. For example, a new-born baby spends 50% of the time in REM sleep, also referred to as "deep sleep".
This is when the body and mind rest and recharge. Both new-borns and older babies get lots of deep sleep. This should reassure parents of babies who tend to wake between each sleep cycle.
How much sleep does your baby need?
The short and somewhat boring answer is that it varies from child to child.
Decades of research have shown that there is a big difference between when, how long and how a child sleeps. It depends on the individual child and family, as well as on the society in which the child lives.
You may have seen charts that describe how much sleep a baby should get based on their age. Some charts even have descriptions of when the baby should sleep and for how long.
These charts are often meant to help parents. But what does it mean for you if your baby's sleep doesn't match the information in the chart?
It is important to keep in mind that all children are different. Some children have less, and some have more need for sleep.
For example, a baby aged 9-10 months may thrive on nine hours of sleep (with awakenings, of course) and a single one-hour nap, while another baby aged 9-10 months may sleep 10-11 hours each night (with awakenings) and take two 2-hour naps. It all varies from child to child.
Trying to get a baby to sleep, who doesn't need more sleep, isn't just stressful. It also gives the baby a less positive experience of sleep and being put to sleep. Take a minute to think about your own sleep pattern; you will not necessarily be able to fall asleep at 8 PM just because your partner is tired then, will you?
Research is based on statistics and only covers how "most" children sleep, not what YOUR baby needs.
We therefore strongly encourage you to focus on your child at the individual level and your child's needs rather than adhering to general guidelines in a chart.
A very general guideline to 24 hours of sleeping
- based on research and Sovende Børns' experience
New-borns (0-3 months):
Approximately 14-17 hours of sleep: Naps and night-time sleep are completely individual.
Babies (4-11 months):
Approximately 12-15 hours of sleep: The child takes 1-4 naps and gets a regular night's sleep, often with awakenings every one to two hours between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Toddlers (1-2 years):
Approximately 11-14 hours of sleep: The child goes from two to one naps and gets a regular night's sleep, many children at this age have 1-3 awakenings, whereas some continue with awakenings every one to two hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Older children (3-5 years):
Approximately 10-13 hours of sleep: Some children sleep until noon at the beginning of their fourth year of life, but most outgrow this habit by the age of four. The child gets a regular night's sleep; however, some children still have one to several awakenings on some or all nights.
Please note that there will always be children who sleep more or less than the above, and this may be perfectly normal and healthy for that child.
If you would like the above information in a table format, you can find it here.
When will your baby be able to fall asleep on his or her own?
Many parents are interested in knowing when their baby will be able to fall asleep on their own, completely unassisted. The brutally honest answer is that there is no one answer to this question, but it will often be somewhere between birth and 4-5 years of age, depending on what you mean by "falling asleep on their own".
If it is just a matter of when your baby doesn't need to be rocked in your arms or swaddled to fall asleep and can lie in bed and, for example, hold hands at bedtime, then it could be as early as 6-12-18 months. However, it is more realistic to think that the child would be around two years old.
If it is a matter of putting the baby to bed, saying goodnight, and leaving the room, some new-borns are okay with that. However, most just aren't. A more realistic estimate is that this will slowly happen once the child reaches the age of 3 or 4.
This is probably not the answer you wanted to hear, however, it is important to have realistic expectations, so you don't get unnecessarily worried about your child or your own "putting-to-sleep skills".
When will your baby be able to sleep through the night?
Many parents ask when their baby will be able to "sleep through the night", i.e., be able to transition from one sleep cycle to the next on their own, so that they sleep three, five and seven hours without the need for parental assistance.
There is no clear answer to that question either. Some babies do just that from when they are just a few days old, while others have awakenings that require parental assistance until they reach school age.
Some babies sleep long stretches for the first 3-4 months of life and then experience night awakenings.
If we are asked to give a realistic, experience- and research-based estimate of when most babies start "sleeping through the night", then it will typically be somewhere between 12 months and 2.5-3 years of age. Again, it depends on what you yourself define as "sleeping through the night".
The Health Authorities use five hours as a reference point to "sleeping through the night". From our experience, however, we know that many parents think that their child should sleep at least eight hours, equivalent to an adult's night's sleep, to have slept "through the night".
Is it okay if my baby falls asleep while breastfeeding or bottle feeding?
Research shows that the baby is calmed by sucking and by drinking milk, whether it is through breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, as hormones are secreted in the baby's stomach during feedings. Breast milk even contain sleep-inducing hormones.
The fact that the baby is kept close to the body, perhaps even skin-to-skin while receiving the milk, is another calming factor that may help it fall asleep.
Parents do not need to worry if their baby falls asleep when it is breastfed or bottle-fed. It's not just normal, it's the way nature designed both the milk and the baby.
Note: Some new-borns or babies may need to be awakened to ensure adequate milk intake. Your health care provider or lactation counsellor will provide guidance on this if it applies to your child.
The fear of not doing "the right thing"
Parents may begin questioning whether it is their fault if their baby is not sleeping "according to the book" or if the baby wakes up at night even though other children in the local mothers' group sleep through the night.
The mere thought that your child's lacking sleep may be caused by something you are doing wrong can easily pop into your mind, and questions such as "is it the wrong bed, pacifier, food, bedtime routine, etc.?" may fill your head.
Some parents may even have doubts about whether something is wrong if their child does not sleep as they had expected or according to what other parents deem to be a common sleep pattern.
Don't worry! It is time to push away all the negative thoughts about "bad habits" and other fear-based assumptions. There is absolutely no research that gives reason to believe that your baby will never sleep in a proper bed simply because it sleeps in a swaddle wrap or baby hammock for the first three, five or 11 months.
Can you teach a baby how to sleep?
You cannot teach your baby how to sleep because the baby knows how to already. The baby has spent much of his or her life in the womb doing nothing but sleeping. Sleep happened all by itself when the uterus rocked the baby to rest.
The baby was never hungry, and the sound of the mother's heartbeat, rumbling intestines, and ambient noise, e.g., from speech, television, and everyday activities, all helped create a soothing, sleep-inducing soundtrack.
In other words, you cannot teach your baby how to sleep, but you can offer sleep under conditions that support your child's sleep. For instance, trying to mimic the baby's experience in the womb may be beneficial.
A baby hammock does all of this, thereby helping to create a safe rocking environment reminiscent of the baby's time in the womb.
Create good conditions for sleep by accommodating your baby's needs instead of working against them
Most parents do it just fine on their own, just by trying things out, listening, and observing, in their quest to figure out what their baby is asking for and likes.
For example, if you want something to lean on, think about all the natural ways to soothe a child and translate them to sleep.
- rocking the child
- singing, talking soothingly or "shushing" lovingly if the child is upset
- offering calm eye contact and cosy chatting to help the child feel secure and engage with you
- offering the baby breastfeeding or a bottle
- allowing for body contact and hugging, cuddling, holding, kissing the child
- taking the child to a quiet place, possibly outside, and in this way shielding him or her (and yourself) from any disturbances that can prevent the calm you are trying to achieve.
All these things are referred to as "emotional regulation" or "co-regulation", which means that the adult "transmits" his or her calm to the baby through all the above-mentioned measures. These are things that all parents do instinctively when their child is fidgety.
A calm nervous system is a prerequisite for sleep
Babies do not have the ability to soothe themselves and their nervous system. Their brains are not developed for it yet. Babies and toddlers can only find the peace and calm they need through parental help. It all comes down to pure brain chemistry as the secretion of sedative hormones and sleep hormones is blocked by stress hormones.
Normal baby sleep is thus in a sense "shared sleep" where parents play a major role, whether physically by sleeping next to the child or by being available every single time the baby expresses a need for help.
Sleep, which happens with the help and support of the parent, helps the child to develop the connections in the brain that create the basis for the child's ability to fall asleep in the long term without parental assistance. In this way, the child can find his or her way back to and maintain a calm nervous system, even when alone at bedtime or waking up at night.
Every time you lovingly help your baby to calm down and fall asleep, whether it takes a lot or a little help, your baby is "borrowing" your calm nervous system and being supported in his or her development.
All babies – or children – learn this skill over time. At their own pace.
- Babies and children often need a lot of help to fall asleep in their first 2-5 years of life. Often, they need much more help than parents are prepared for.
- Awakenings with the need for help to calm down again usually occur right up to school age.
- Babies' and children's sleep needs are individual and can vary greatly – just like adults.
- Most parents are very supportive of their child's sleep and show it by listening, observing, and following their intuition.
- Fearing that you as a parent are doing something wrong, that you are creating bad habits, or that there is something wrong with your child, is completely normal. However, it is important to remember that this fear is only relevant in rare cases. If in doubt, you should always contact your health care provider or lactation counsellor.
- Parental help with falling asleep forms the basis for future "independent sleeping".
ABOUT SOVENDE BØRN
Sovende Børn is an online universe for parents and professionals seeking guidance and information about babies and children's sleep and sleep issues.
The purpose is to give parents and professionals the right tools to make informed choices that suit the individual child's sleep situation.
On the website and social media outlets, you will find updated and reliable information about available research, as well as webinars, workshops, courses, etc.
Thank you for being among our readers.
I’m Marie, mom to a little boy. And I’m the woman behind the Moonboon company making organic and sustainable baby accessories that respect people and the environment.
Have a look at our baby accessories here.
I want for my son to sleep in optimal conditions, and I want the same for your baby. That’s why I’m especially proud of our GOTS certified hammock and the specially designed motor that has helped me and many other parents sleep better at night.
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