Sleep is a basic physiological need required for body growth, brain maturation, learning and memory. For this reason and others, sleep is one of the most important things for your baby's well-being.
The Importance of Sleep to Babies
Sleep is a basic physiological need required for physical recovery, reinvigoration, body growth, brain maturation, learning and memory. Some babies sleep as many as 18-20 hours during their first days of life, whereas others sleep only 8-10 hours. These varying tendencies may persist throughout baby's first year. Whatever the case may be, all parents can benefit greatly from learning more about their baby's sleep and the physiological and psychological elements related to sleep.
Sleeping Through the Night
Newborns spend, on average, 16 hours a day in sleep. Their sleep is divided into 4-6 sleep episodes around the clock, separated by relatively short periods of wakefulness. During the first year of life, in a rapid developmental process, sleep concentrates mostly at night, and daytime sleep drops dramatically. Sleep at night becomes more continuous, and the number of night-wakings and their duration decreases. This process that leads to “sleeping through the night” is achieved by most babies during the first year of life. However, as many as 20-30% continue to experience fragmented sleep characterized by frequent night-wakings and difficulties falling asleep -- becoming their major sleep problem during the first two years of life.
Chronic and sustained sleep deprivation can lead to exhaustion, physical damage to body tissues, dysfunction of the immune system, severe stress and even death. The growth hormone, the one responsible for a baby’s physical growth, is secreted mostly during the deep stages of a baby’s sleep. A severe sleep disorder could, therefore, lead to insufficient secretion of this hormone and to compromised body maturation.
When a baby suddenly becomes active during sleep it means she is in a unique stage of sleep -- Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This stage is associated with dreaming. Babies spend as much as 50 percent of their sleep in REM sleep, which is very important for brain maturation, learning and development. A baby is born with about 30 percent of her full brain size, and during the first 3 years, the brain grows very rapidly. It is believed that REM sleep is an essential stage that facilitates brain growth, which is why babies spend so much time of their infancy in this unique sleep stage. We also know that during REM sleep, the brain “digests” and stores all the information that bombards a baby during the wakeful hours.
Time to Sleep
When babies don’t get enough sleep they tend to be agitated, nervous, hyperactive, and difficult to manage. Most parents experience these situations when their baby reaches the time she needs to go to sleep. These signs present important information for parents, telling them when their baby is ready for sleep. Many parents know that when they miss their baby’s sleep time, it could become much harder for her to calm down and fall asleep. This is because their baby, like an adult, has an internal biological clock that makes it easy to fall asleep at certain times, and difficult to fall asleep at others. Keeping to a regular schedule helps baby regulate her biological clock and develop healthy sleep patterns.
Baby Waking Up at Night
The average baby wakes up 2-3 times at night. Some babies have the capacity to soothe themselves back to sleep, while others require parental assistance. Babies who learn to fall asleep in their bed without assistance, wake up less often at night and require less parental assistance when they do wake up. Professionals in the field, therefore, recommend that parents encourage their babies to fall asleep in their own bed from early on, in order to prevent sleep problems. In addition, clear boundaries should be created between daytime activities and interactions, and the bedtime atmosphere that encourages relative darkness, silence, and sleep.
Sleep is Affected by…
Sleep is influenced by many physical, external and psychosocial factors:
- Medical Issues: A baby’s sleep can be adversely affected by medical problems such as breathing problems, ear infections, colic, gastro-esophageal reflux, allergies, teething, as well as many other conditions.
- External Influences include noise, temperature, light, and bedding.
- Psychosocial influences mainly relate to bedtime interactions with parents, sleep-related fears, separation anxiety, inappropriate habits and expectations.
- Cultural issues also play a major role in shaping parental sleep-related beliefs and behaviors. For instance, having a baby sleep with his parents in their bed is a very controversial issue, and is mainly determined by cultural norms and expectations.
How Much Sleep is Enough?
Significant sleep-related differences exist between babies from the day they are born. Some babies sleep as many as 18-20 hours during their first days of life, whereas others sleep only 8-10 hours during these same days. Some babies have the capacity to sleep continuously for extended periods (4-6 hours), whereas others wake up every single sleep cycle (50-60 minutes). These individual differences in sleep needs and sleep quality can explain the difficulties some parents experience with their baby’s sleep from early on. These individual differences also make it very difficult to answer the simple question of “How much sleep does a baby need at a certain age?” To determine if a baby is getting enough sleep, one needs to assess the baby’s waking hours. If the baby is relatively calm, alert and easy-going then he is probably getting enough sleep. If he is nervous, difficult, and frequently rubs his eyes, he is probably not getting enough sleep.
Night-feedings diminish dramatically during the first year. From 3-4 meals (every 3-4 hours) during the first months, the frequency of nocturnal meals gradually decreases, until the end of the first year when most infants no longer require nocturnal feeding. Although parents often tend to associate night wakings with hunger, studies have shown that increased food intake before sleep does not have a positive influence on subsequent sleep.
Tips for Parents
- Be sure to put your baby to sleep on her back and refrain as much as possible from tummy sleep.
- Try to establish constant routines and schedules. Constant routines help your baby develop her own biological clock and self-soothing skills.
- If you want your baby to sleep in his own separate bed, try to encourage him early on to fall asleep in his bed with minimal assistance. This is particularly important if your baby appears to have more sensitive or problematic sleep.
- If your baby’s sleep is sensitive, try to discourage rewarding activities at night.
- Try to minimize your involvement and encourage your baby to resume sleep in bed with minimal help when he gets up at night.
- If your baby wakes up many times at night, if she snores or suffers from breathing difficulties at night, and these phenomena are persistent -- seek professional help. There are very effective treatments for these disorders and your baby shouldn’t have to suffer from these problems for any length of time, and neither should you.