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Understanding Your Baby's Sleep

Sleep is complex. It’s more than simply closing your eyes and sinking into a deep, sweet slumber. Understanding your child’s sleep behavior and knowing what to expect developmentally as your child grows can help to prevent future sleep struggles.

All too often, we try to fit our child’s sleeping habits into a specific mold. The fact of the matter is that just won’t work. There is no one size fits all when it comes to sleep because every person & every baby is different. Not only that, but children’s sleep is much different than adult sleep. We cannot expect our child’s sleep to follow the same patterns as our own. Yes, sleep is natural. Yes, your child will eventually sleep when they get tired enough. However, there are biological explanations for your child's sleep patterns and it changes as they grow & their brains mature.

In order to understand your baby’s sleep you must first understand 3 biological processes that take time to fully develop:

1. Biological clocks (aka our sleep-wake rhythm)

Our bodies have the incredible capability to carry out tasks to keep us functioning day in and day out through what is called the biological clock. These systems are on a 24-hour cycle and help the body regulate things such as sleep, hunger, and temperature. The biological clock is triggered by the amount of light coming through our eyes and will reset every 24-hours. Babies are not born with a mature system in place. It takes a few months to develop. True sleep patterns, driven by the biological clock, begin to emerge around 4 months. This is when you’ll start to see more of a day & night sleeping pattern. It’s not until children reach school age that their sleep behaviors mirror those of an adult.

2. Sleep Hormones

Two hormones are produced as a result of these day & night rhythms, melatonin and cortisol. When light hits your eyes, the brain sends a signal to produce cortisol, a stress hormone designed to keep you awake through the day. As the sun sets, less light exposure triggers the brain to stop producing cortisol and begin producing melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone that helps relax the body and prepare it for sleep. Your fresh newborn baby’s brain is not yet mature enough to run on the day & night rhythm or regulate these hormones. So, when your child is not sleeping during the first few months, you are not doing anything wrong; it simply is not biologically possible for them to function in the same way as your adult brain. By 4-months the brain is more mature and better able to regulate these hormones, which is why you see more regular sleep patterns emerging.

3. The Sleep Cycle

The last biological process for you to understand is our sleep cycle. We all cycle through 2 phases of sleep, non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) & REM (rapid eye movement). Non-REM includes three phases; the first phase is very light sleep, the 2nd phase is when the heartbeat slows, temperature decreases & your muscles relax, and in the third phase you enter deep sleep. The body is now completely relaxed and it is very hard to wake up from this phase. After the 3rd phase, you enter into REM sleep. This known as “active sleep.” It’s a lighter sleep, but your brain is actively processing & learning from the day’s activities.

The biggest difference in sleep cycles in children vs. adults is the length of each cycle. Adults will complete one full cycle in about 90-100 minutes, while children will complete one cycle in 60 minutes (newborns 40 minutes). Children also spend two times more of their sleep in REM sleep compared to adults. For your child, this is very important for brain development because this is when their brain processes and creates new connections. Your child is constantly making connections – everything is new and their brain needs time to process these new connections.

I believe the first step in approaching sleep problems for your child is understanding their sleep. Yes, sleep is natural, but for children it is a process. If your child’s sleep is not coming together how you would like, take a step back to first understand how their sleep works. Once you understand their sleep, look at what is developmentally appropriate for your child's age. The way children are designed to sleep is good for them. It keeps them healthy, strong, and constantly growing.

Not exactly sure where to begin? I can help! If your child is currently struggling with sleep or you simply would like to chat about sleep at different ages & stages contact me here. I will create a sleep plan that is both biologically & developmentally appropriate to fit your child & family's unique sleep needs.


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