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.
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.
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.
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.
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 influenced by many physical, external and psychosocial factors:
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.
Any advice and information provided in this website is given as suggestions only and should not be taken as a professional medical diagnosis or opinion. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent.