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Understanding the Sleep Process for Babies

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Sleep is an important nutrient that is vital to your baby’s wellbeing. During your baby’s first year of life, their brain doubles in weight due to the incredible amount of complex brain development that takes place, most of it while they are sleeping so understanding the sleep process for babies is really important.

Sleep is a learned behaviour so babies are not born knowing how to sleep

Babies need to learn essential skills so that they can become an independent sleeper, meaning that they are able to settle and resettle themselves to sleep without being dependent upon you or any sleep prop. How you choose to manage this will have a very strong influence on your baby. You can improve the quality and quantity of your baby’s sleep using various ways and making changes when and if required. So whether your baby will sleep well or poorly is very much dependent upon the support that you give to your baby. Saying that, some babies sleep habits will very much reflect their temperament and not your parenting.

Understanding the keys to successful sleep is really important and establishing and encouraging good sleep habits from birth is a great start.

Until babies are 12-16 weeks old they do not have the brain connections in place to self-soothe so they need you to help them to learn this vital skill. That does not mean that you won’t have your challenges because there are many factors that can disrupt sleep patterns such as growth spurts, your baby being unwell and just their normal development as they become more alert, inquisitive and active as they mature. But as long as you have set a good base and you are armed with the right information and skills, it will not take long to get them sleeping well again.



  • Sleep is related very closely to feeding.

 If your baby is feeding well, she will sleep well and if she is sleeping well, she will feed well

  • Babies sleep requirements vary enormously with the average being 16 hours in a 24 hour period. This period shortens by approximately 1 hour over the first year with just the pattern of the sleep changing.


  • Young babies sleep as much through the day as they do during the night. As they get closer to 6 months old, their night-time sleep gets longer and their day time sleeps become fewer.


  • Some babies are very noisy sleepers and this is normal, particularly when they are settling to sleep or transitioning from a light to a deep sleep cycle.


  • Lack of sleep is the most common cause of a fussy, unsettled or distressed baby. Sleep, like food is a basic human requirement and lack of sleep is a major source of stress for babies, affecting them both physically and emotionally.


  • With each developmental step, your baby can change their sleep pattern. This can also happen when your baby is unwell or in a different environment.


  • Keeping your baby up during the day will not allow her to sleep longer at night. It will cause her to become overtired and an overtired baby is very difficult to settle. Sleep breed’s sleep.

The longer your baby sleeps during the day, the longer she will sleep at night


Baby Sleep Cycles:

When it comes to babies, sleep cycles are important to understand.

  • Babies spend 50-60% of their sleep in active/REM (rapid eye movement/active sleep), which is a much lighter and easily disturbed cycle of sleep. This is a really important phase of sleep as the brain is extremely active during this time, processing and storing information. During this phase of sleep, baby’s dream.


  • Babies only spend on average 30-45 minutes in a deep sleep cycle. During this phase of sleep, vital hormones are released for growth and development and tissue growth and repair occur. This is a much quieter state of sleep that allows the brain to rest.


  • Some babies can have even shorter sleep cycles, waking after only 15-30 minutes. This is usually due to your baby having wind or reflux, being over tired or have been over stimulated. Some babies are very sensitive to any change of sound, movement or a change in their environment and will wake instantly or within a short period of time. eg: when the car stops or your rocking


  • Babies stir and sometimes wake fully after a sleep cycle and may cry out, grizzle or groan as they transition through into their next sleep cycle. Some babies will need help to transition though this. If your baby wakes after 40 minutes of being put down to sleep, this is a clear sign that she will need your help to teach her to resettle.


  • Most babies will mature into an adult like sleep pattern sometime within the second half of their first year. An adults deep sleep cycle lasts for 90 minutes before moving into a lighter phase of active/REM sleep. The cycles then alternate all night, with an adult spending an average of 6 hours in a deep sleep state and 2 hours in active/REM sleep.


  • Most babies and adults need to have wind down time before being able to drift off into their first sleep cycle. Babies go through a cycle of active/REM sleep before entering into a deeper phase of sleep unlike adults who enter a deep sleep cycle immediately.


  • Some babies may take longer than the average time of 20 minutes to fall into a deep sleep cycle, so if you have a baby that is like this, be wary when moving them while asleep from your arms or car seat etc. as they are likely to wake up if they have not entered into a deep sleep cycle. Wait for signs that they have entered this cycle first before moving them.


  • Babies are biologically and physiologically programmed to have more awakenings and active/REM sleep than adults. This is a protective mechanism that prevents your baby from entering a deeper sleep state that would put your baby at a greater risk of SUDI. Premature babies stay in active/REM sleep even longer, for 90% of their sleep time. This assists them with accelerated brain growth and further reduces their risk of SUDI.

Getting your baby to sleep through the night too early, for too long and too deeply is not encouraged as it will be to the detriment of their basic survival and overall development


Lighter Sleep Cycle (REM or active sleep):

Your baby’s breathing is irregular, his hands and limbs are flexed and he may startle or twitch. His eyes rapidly move under his eyelids and he may have facial grimaces.

 Deeper Sleep Cycle (Quiet sleep):

 As your baby moves into a deeper sleep cycle from a lighter sleep cycle, you will notice that his breathing becomes much more regular and his muscles are completely relaxed. His little fists unfold and his limbs are weightless.


Sleep Phases:

There are 3 phases of sleep that will help teach your baby to be an independent sleeper:

  • Sleep Window
  • Winding Down
  • Settling Stage

Babies cannot be put straight into bed and expected to fall asleep without first being helped to transition from an activity. On average, this can take around 20 minutes, from seeing their first tired cue to entering their first deep sleep cycle.

The Sleep Window:

This is the time that your baby will show you that they are starting to get tired, using their non-verbal body language. Every baby is different so it is important for you to learn how to read your baby’s tired cues. Missing your baby’s sleep window can make it more of a challenge to settle her, as she will be overtired.

Winding Down:

This is an important stage because you are setting the scene for a good sleep by giving your baby lots of cues that it is time to go to sleep and allowing them time to start switching off. This is achieved by creating a healthy sleep environment, using sleep aids which give your baby positive sleep associations and all done in a predictable and repetitive pattern each time your baby is put down to sleep. This not only helps your baby to learn what to expect but also builds trust between you and your baby.

Sleep rituals are key

If you were to use a scale from 1-10, 1 being active and alert and 10 being in a deep cycle of sleep, try to wait until your baby reaches a 7/8 before you attempt to settle your baby in their bed. It sounds very technical and precise but once you have sussed your baby’s tired cues and been patient during this winding down process, you will reap the rewards with a baby who is an independent sleeper.


After you take your baby into her room you:

  • Turn her white noise music on.
  • Swaddle her (preferably not in her bed) before picking her up and giving her a cuddle and last chance to bring up any wind.
  • Keep your tone low and calming and give her some verbal reassurance with your chosen phrase eg: “ Its time to go to sleep princess”.
  • You then go over to the window and reduce the light in her room by closing the blinds slightly.
  • Continue to comfort her in your arms for a few minutes, saying good night to all her toys, until you see her starting to settle. Ensure that you place her into her bed when she is drowsy but still awake.

(Newborns are very sleepy and are ready to sleep very quickly after their short wake time so this winding down time is more relevant as your baby matures).

Settling Stage:

  • Tuck her firmly into bed and give her some more verbal reassurance.
  • Give her a kiss and leave the room to allow her to settle on her own. (Remember that grizzling can be a tired sign).

By allowing this to happen, you are teaching her to learn to self-soothe

  • Only return to her room if she starts to consistently cry as she is telling you that she needs your help to settle.

If she is not calming, try to settle her in her bed by using the steady and rhythmic shushing and patting technique while placing a hand on her shoulder or chest, giving her comfort and security.

If the patting and shushing is not working then feel free to pick her up and place her over your shoulder, continuing to shush and pat her there. As soon as she shows any signs that she is calming, place her back into bed and continue shushing and patting her there.

Avoid any movements that you cannot replicate in her bed such as rocking, jiggling or swaying

Repeat the cycle if required, slowing the rhythm of your patting and shushing as she calms until you eventually stop. Wait a few minutes by her bed, to see her move into a deep sleep cycle if she has taken a while to settle. If you leave too early, you may have to start the whole process all over again, so it is worth being patient.


Please feel free to contact me at anytime if you feel you need more support or advice regarding settling or resettling your baby.


Elysia Gobbie
Baby Advisor
Dip HSc (Midwifery) BHSC (Nursing)

Elysia GobbieUnderstanding the Sleep Process for Babies
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