What You Should Know About Newborn Baby Sleeping Patterns

Newborn Baby Sleep PatternsBefore 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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6 thoughts on “What You Should Know About Newborn Baby Sleeping Patterns”

  1. Just curious about my 6 1/2 month old daughters sleep cycles. She goes into her crib awake and is able to put herself to sleep on her own for night and naps.
    I’m not sure if this is normal but she always struggles to go through the first (and sometimes second sleep cycle) at around 30 minutes during naps. I have a monitor and watch her tossing and turning, sometimes a small cry out and maybe kicking her legs. Sometimes this goes on for up to 15 minutes before she is back to sleep. Sometimes its just a few minutes. And every once in a while the nap will end there.
    Is this something she will get better at? I’m worried she isn’t having a deep enough sleep.
    She does tend to move a lot in her sleep as well.

    • @Shannon Thank you for visiting our sleepy little village! That’s great that your daughter is sleeping well. We find there is a wide range as far as what’s “normal” so any concerns should always be posed to her doctor, but I can tell you that babies and toddlers are very active sleepers and indeed go through sleep cycles. Not all sleep is deep sleep. Keep up the great work and good luck!

  2. @ Corrine – I’m SO glad to hear things are getting better!! 🙂 Thanks so much for taking the time to write this update; I really do love hearing from commenters about the progress they’re making!

    So glad that you are finding the Baby Sleep Site a helpful and supportive resource 🙂 You’re right – one of the things I love most about this site is that supportive community of moms who help each other feel like they’re not alone!

    Thanks again for the update, Corrine – and happy sleeping!! 🙂

  3. Thank you Emily. Sometimes its even nice to no you are not alone and it isn’t just your kid that’s going through this. We are not able to move her back to the crib or her old room, because her 5 month old brother is now in that room and crib. Last night we did something a little different and it worked, so I will be interested to see if it works tonight. She loves reading and is really into reading to herself right now. So I left the book that we read before she went to sleep in her room by her bed. When she woke in the middle of the night, she cried slightly, but did not get off of her bed. Then she found the book and read her book on laying her bed until she fell asleep. There was no screaming for mommy or daddy. It was the best night of sleep we have had in a LONG time. I figured if she is going to wake up anyways, this is at least something that does not disrupt anyone else and she stays quiet in her bed, and she wasn’t awake probably as long as she is when she is crying. Thanks so much for responding. I really appreciate it A LOT! Like I said, it really is just comforting to no that I’m not the only one, and that it is normal!

  4. @ Corrine Barton – this sounds SO normal. Honestly! And it sounds like you are handling it so well. I’ll bet you this is a sleep regression brought on by the transition (and possibly just by plain old growth and development – some kids go through the 2 year sleep regression a little early. As frustrating as it is, this could last another few weeks before it’s over.

    I know this will bring you no comfort, but in my opinion, you should keep doing what you’re doing – offer her comfort at regular intervals, but don’t make any big changes to her sleep routines.

    Another option – I’ll just put this out there – would be to go back to her old sleeping arrangement, in a crib. If the new sleep setup is what’s prompting this behavior, then going back to the crib *might* help. Then again, you might not want to take a big step backwards like that, and that’s understandable.

    Does this help at all, Corinne? You are totally not alone in this – I literally JUST responded to another comment, on a different article, from a mom of a 21-month old who is doing this exact same thing – used to sleep thru the night fine, and is now waking. Normal, normal, normal. But frustrating, I know. Hang in there! 🙂

  5. This is not related to this article but I have a question. My 21 month old transitioned to a big girl room and big girl bed with no pacifier about 4 weeks ago. She is waking at least once during the night and screaming for mommy or daddy to lay down in her bed. She even does this some nights when putting her to bed. Our bedtime routine involves me laying down with her in her bed, reading a book, praying, and singing and then I leave. She was fine for about a week but now she is back to screaming and crying. When she wakes in the middle of the night, the first time I go in I will lay down with her for a few minutes and sing and pack her back and then leave. But if she continues to scream and cry, I will go in at timed intervals (5-7-10 minutes) and assure her that we are here and she is ok, but I will not lay down again. I do not want to start a bad habit or become a sleep crutch or her. She also does the crying and screaming when I put her down for nap. Sometimes she will even fall asleep on the floor by the door. I do not know what else to do or try. In the past 4 weeks she has slept all night I think 3 times. She used to sleep all night consistently. If you have any suggestions or some information or tips that you could point me to, I would greatly appreciate it. I have no clue what to do. Thanks so much.

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