There is much received wisdom on infant sleep and new parents will find that just about everyone they speak to has an opinion – where, how much, how often. For parents, understanding infant sleep and adapting to new patterns and behaviours can be one of the biggest challenges in the early years. Unsurprisingly, sleep is one of the main concerns presented by parents to child and family health nurses. By giving parents information about sleep, they can be better prepared to promote and support healthy sleep patterns in their infants (Middlemiss, 2004).
During sleep we all go through cycles of deep and light sleep. An adult’s sleep cycle lasts around 90 minutes, but an infant’s cycle is shorter, lasting 20 to 50 minutes. Deep sleep is quiet sleep; babies are mostly still and breathe evenly, but will sometimes jerk or startle. During light, active sleep, babies look restless, groan, sometimes open their eyes and even wake up completely. The amount of time we spend in each phase of sleep varies depending on age.
Newborns spend about half their sleeping time in a light, active sleep, but by three years old, only one third of sleep time is active. This continues to reduce as children grow older. Understanding the physiological basics of sleep – cycles, patterns, phases and how much we need at different ages – can help health professionals and parents make better sense of infant sleep behaviours. For example, frequent night waking can be a problem for some parents but is in fact a normal part of an infant’s sleep cycle.
There’s even an argument that night waking serves protective functions by allowing frequent feeding and creating the opportunity for emotional reconnection and brain stimulation. It may be helpful for parents to focus on improving their infant’s ability to self-settle rather than on the frequent waking.