Why don’t young babies sleep more? Why are they awake so much during the night?

Sleep in babies from the age of birth to 3 months explained.

In the 20 years I have been working with families with young children, a common theme that crops up in the new-born period is ‘why doesn’t my baby sleep more?’ It is the cause of a lot of stress and many parents feel they are doing something wrong or that their baby is ‘broken’. So, I want to discuss the facts of what is a typical awake/sleep pattern of a new-born baby is, why it is so different to ours and what you can do to help optimise your baby’s sleep.

 Graph that shows Normal Sleep Patterns in Infants. Galland et al 2012

The awake and sleeping patterns of babies.

Studies have shown that the total hours of sleep in a 24-hour period for a baby can range from 8-18 hours. Look at the graph above to see the vast range of normal hours of sleep for a child. Some babies have a lower sleep need and some a higher need. When you look at the total hours of sleeping in a 24 hour period, it can add up to a lot, but to the parent it will not feel like that. This is because babies don’t sleep for long consolidated periods of time like we do. The time spent asleep can be as little as 15-30 minutes or up to 1-3 hours. The time when they are asleep varies from day to day and night to night. It is incredibly random in nature, which although is normal for your baby, can be very challenging for you to manage. The time a baby can be awake for can be as little as 45 minutes or up to 1-2 hours before they need to sleep again.

Why is your babies awake and sleep patterns so different to yours?

There are five main reasons why a baby has a very different pattern to ours.

  1. Rapid growth. Babies in this age range grow very rapidly. Once they have regained their birthweight at about 2 weeks of age, they can gain daily a weight of 25-30 grams or 1 ounce. By the time your baby is 6 months old they have often doubled their birth weight and by a year they have tripled it. A new-born babies’ brain is about 30% the size of an adult brain. By 12 weeks of age it has grown to being 50% the size of an adult brain. In order to provide energy for all this growth your baby needs to—
  2. Feed frequently. A baby needs to feed frequently to provide all the nutrition for the rapid growth. If the baby is breast fed, then they have to learn to take the milk out of their mummy’s breast and for some babies this can take many weeks to master. The rapid growth means it doesn’t take very long for your baby to feel hungry again. This will mean the baby will feed frequently day and night. The pattern and the length of the feeding process will vary hugely and will be influenced by how well they latch onto and drain the breast or bottle, growth spurts and any allergies, colic or health problems.
  3. Short sleep cycles. Our sleep cycles range from 90-120 minutes long. A baby’s sleep cycle is 30-40 minutes long. Once a baby is asleep the way they sleep is also different. We spend about 20% of sleep in what is known as light active sleep (REM) sleep. A baby spends 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep. Whilst they are in this phase and you try to put them down, they will wake up easily. It is thought they spend so much time in REM sleep because of the rapid brain growth and the need to feed frequently. So, if you find your baby has been asleep for only 30-40 minutes, that is a sleep cycle and probably enough sleep for them at that time.
  4. Not producing the sleep-inducing hormone Melatonin yet. A baby starts to produce Melatonin at 2-3 months of age. This hormone gets secreted in the evening when it starts to get dark. Once a baby starts to produce Melatonin they increase the hours of sleep during the night hours but will not be sleeping all night.
  5. Need to be close to their parent most of the time. A young baby is completely dependent on you to meet their needs. We are in the ‘carry mammal’ group which means our babies like to be held and carried a lot. They are at their happiest and sleep better when close to mummy or daddy.

What can you do to help best optimise your babies sleep.

Firstly, you are going to have to accept the random nature of your babies awake and sleeping pattern. It is something you cannot control or should even try to. You have to accept that during this stage of your baby’s development you are very much baby-led. So here are some things that can help.

  • Feed your baby responsively. By this I mean feeding your baby every time they show signs they are wanting a feed. Try not to be concerned if the last feed was only 30 minutes ago. Feeding patterns at this stage are random in nature. Remember they can take many weeks to learn the skill of feeding and sometimes just having a suck is all they want. They are also totally capable of regulating their appetite and if they are going through a growth spurt, they will want to feed more frequently. A hungry baby is very unsettled, and this will affect their sleep.
  • Learn to recognize their tired signs. This will take you a while to identify as each baby exhibits different tired signs. Sleep signs can include yawning, rubbing eyes or ears, gaze aversion or going quiet or pale. Once your child displays these signs then try to facilitate sleep. They often will need your assistance in going to sleep either by nursing or rocking. Most babies will fall asleep when being held by their parent. By reacting to their tired signs and facilitating sleep you will prevent your baby from becoming over-tired. Over-tiredness affects sleep adversely.
  • Expose them to broad-spectrum daylight. By this I mean getting them outside for some time during the day.  Research has shown that exposure to daylight helps regulate the circadian rhythm.
  • Start a bedtime routine. At this stage they tend to settle for the night between 10pm and 2am. Studies have shown that if a child has a predictable bedtime routine then it positively affects sleep. At this stage a bedtime routine won’t make much difference to the nights, but as your child gets older, they will start to associate the bedtime routine with the expectation of sleep.

Finally, a new-born baby will affect your sleep. Sleep deprivation is tough, tough, tough. All you can do at this stage is to try to enlist the help of family or friends. Let them help you with household chores. Get them to look after the baby whilst you try to have a nap. This is a very intensive and tiring phase for you as a parent, so make sure you look after yourself as well.

Vanessa Campion is a registered Nurse and a Registered Health Visitor. She is also a Holistic Sleep Coach. She works privately as a parent support consultant at www.savoycsparentingsupport.co.uk.

Email savoy.cs@outlook.com. Tel 07825321380 Monday to Friday 9am-6pm.

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