Before I had children, I remember thinking (based on my very limited experience with babies!) that newborns slept all the time. Most of the newborns I’d see would be fast asleep in their strollers, in their carseats, in their slings, or in their moms’ arms, at any given time of day.
When I had a newborn of my own at home, however, I learned that my observation was only partly true. Yes, newborns do sleep a lot – but they don’t sleep for long!!
What’s that about, anyway? Why are newborns light sleepers? And why do they wake so frequently?
Why Does Your Newborn Baby Wake Frequently?
If you’ve done any reading on newborn sleep, then you know that newborns do, in fact, sleep a lot. On average, newborns sleep anywhere from 14-17 hours in a 24-hour period — that’s a lot of sleep! But here’s the thing – that sleep happens in short, 2-4 hour chunks around the clock. In this way, newborn sleep is far more fragmented than adult sleep – or even older baby and toddler sleep.
Why is newborn sleep so fragmented? Well, in part, it has to do with your newborn’s drive to eat. Remember, your newborn is growing at a phenomenal rate – she will double her birth weight in the first 4-5 months of life! It’s no wonder, then, that she needs to feed every few hours. Her tummy is small, and her calorie needs are quite high.
But hunger isn’t the only driving force behind your newborn’s frequent waking.
Your Newborn Baby’s Sleep Cycles Explained
The truth is, your newborn’s sleeping patterns are very different from yours. We, adults, tend to have longer sleep cycles – ours last anywhere from 90 – 100 minutes. And the majority of our sleep cycles are spent in deep sleep, with only a small percentage spent in more active, REM sleep.
But things are very different for your newborn. For one thing, your newborn’s sleep cycles are much shorter – they are only about 50 minutes long. That’s almost half as long as yours! And it’s not just the sleep cycle length that’s different. Newborns spend way more time in active sleep than we adults do, and way less in deep sleep. In fact, it’s estimated that newborns spend about 75% of their sleep time in active sleep, compared to 20% for adults.
Short Cycles + Lots of Active Sleep = A Newborn Baby Who Wakes Up A Lot
Here’s how all these scientific facts fit together. It’s during the transition from one sleep cycle to the next that a person is most likely to wake up briefly. This is true for children and adults alike. If you think about it, this makes sense – you probably wake sometimes in the middle of the night, for no apparent reason, and then roll over and go back to sleep. That’s most likely because your brain was moving from one sleep cycle to the next. The same thing happens to your newborn.
But here’s the thing – your newborn goes through many more sleep cycles each night than you do. While we adults may have 4 or 5 sleep cycles in a given night, your newborn has up to twice that many. That means double the chances of waking up between cycles.
And we have to take all that active sleep into account, too. Active sleep tends to be lighter sleep – when we are in active, REM sleep, we are dreaming, and tend to stir and move more frequently. We are also much more prone to being woken up during active sleep. The same is true for your newborn – during lighter sleep, your newborn is more vulnerable to being awokened.
So when you add these two facts together – the fact that your newborn goes through many more sleep cycles each night, and the fact that newborns spend the majority of their sleep time in light, active sleep – and then you add in the round-the-clock need for food, it’s easier to understand why your newborn wakes often.
Why Are Your Newborn Baby’s Sleeping Patterns So Different?
We know the ‘what’ behind newborn sleeping patterns, but what about the why? Why do our newborns have many short sleep cycles, and why do they spend so much time in active sleep?
As it turns out, your newborn’s sleeping patterns are designed to keep your little one healthy and safe. The fact that your newborn spends lots of time in active sleep ensures that she will wake up to feed; it may also help to protect babies from SIDS. Some researchers have also indicated that the long amounts of time newborns spend in active sleep is crucial to their brain development.
What Does This Mean For You?
Well, it clearly means that if you have a sleepless newborn on your hands, that is completely normal! For the first 8-12 weeks of life, babies really do need to wake every few hours in order to eat, and they need to have more active sleep so that their brains develop normally.
But of course, the newborn stage is short-lived – by 4 months or so, most babies are ready to start having a long stretch of sleep at night. And by about 9 months of age, most babies are either sleeping through the night or are down to just one nighttime feeding. So yes – it does get better!
Don’t let all this talk about how normal night wakings make you think that there’s nothing you can do to maximize your newborn’s nighttime sleep, however. While you can’t expect a newborn to sleep through the night, there are gentle, safe things you can do to help maximize your newborn’s sleep.
Questions about your newborn’s sleeping patterns? Tips to share on how to improve newborn sleep? Share ’em below, in the comments!
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