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Understanding Sleep in Stages

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This blog will help you to understand the stages of sleep for you and your little one. How much do you know about how you sleep? Do you or at least did you (before having children), sleep solidly through the night? Does your child sleep through the night?

Everyone sleeps differently and it is completely normal for little ones to wake during the night whether that be for a feed or because they are struggling to get into the next sleep cycle or simply just something else.

Sleep cycles

There are four stages of sleep.

  • Stage 1 – Non-REM sleep. This is like dozing and you can easily be woken from this stage. When going to sleep this stage only typically lasts for several minutes.
  • Stage 2 –  Non-REM deep sleep. We spend roughly half of our sleep in this stage. Eye movement stops in this stage and our bodies fully relax.
  • Stage 3 – Non-REM deep sleep. It is difficult to wake someone during this stage.
  • Stage 4 – REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) and this is the stage that we dream and our bodies can twitch and eyes move. As the night progresses, we spend less time in Stage 3 and more time in Stage 4.

Whilst we all understand what people mean when they say, ‘I slept like a baby last night’ but really the saying should be ‘I slept like a newborn last night’. This is because newborns spend most of their day 16-18 hours in 50% deep sleep (REM) and 50% lighter sleep (non-Rem) meaning they only go between 2 sleep cycles and not 4. Babies start to regress in their sleep around 4 months old when they start to developmentally go through the 4 month sleep regression where their sleep cycles start to mature to the 4 stages of sleep. At this time a baby may struggle to link their sleep cycles and may be more wakeful between cycles. You can find out more about the 4 month sleep regression here.

When sleep cycles have matured (around 4 months of age) the typical length of a sleep cycle is 45-60 minutes. In comparison for anyone over the age of 5 years old, sleep cycles are roughly 90 minutes long.

So in answer to my earlier question, ‘Do you sleep solidly through the night’? The answer is simply…no, no you don’t and in fact no one sleeps solidly through the night. This answer may seem a little pedantic, but it really is not and physiologically we all sleep in stages throughout the night in and out of these sleep cycles. We may not remember but we partially wake between the stages before rolling into the next cycle of sleep. Everyone comes to the edge of sleep several times throughout the night.

Sleep for Babies

Does you baby sleep well at night time? Little ones who don’t sleep well generally need help to get back to sleep every time they come to the edge of sleep (every 45-60 minutes). This does not need to be your ‘normal’. I have written a blog about the benefits of good quality restorative sleep in in a blog called, The Benefits of Sleep.  If night waking’s like this are becoming draining on everyone and you want to learn how you can help them consolidated their sleep I can help you.

What is expected for night wakings

  • 0-3 months:  Newborns need to feed regularly with about 3-5 feeds during the night. Whilst that baby bubble is beautiful not all parents have the time or feel the same.  You may feel like you may need some space and time especially if you have other children to look after. Allowing your baby to practice falling to sleep without doing something to them (feeding, rocking etc) can help avoid sleep associations.
  • 3-6 months: At this age babies will start to consolidate their nighttime sleep. This usually starts at beditime at night when you may see your little one have consolidated sleep of about 2-3 hours initially.  This is when the deep, restorative sleep occurs. The hotly anticipated 4-month sleep regression also appears at this point, resulting in the development of sleep cycles. Since my sleep practitioner training I came to understand the 4 month sleep regression as more of as a ‘progression’ as it is in fact, it is a massive cognitive development and the time their sleep cycles are maturing and they are developing sleep cycles . I appreciate however that during this stage it is hard to see this is a ‘progression’ as beforehand your baby may have slept for longer and more often. Depending on their feeding journey up to this point, some little ones still need between 1-3 feeds a night however not every wake may be due to hunger once they have developed sleep cycles.
  • 6-9 months: this is a time when NHS recommends you start your baby’s weaning journey. When they start to consume more solids in a day you may find that they start to drop the night feeds. This often coincides with being able to drop down to 1, or perhaps no, night feeds. If a baby is still waking frequently in the night at this time it may be that they are struggling to link their sleep cycles. If they are waking for a feed and then settling back to sleep for 3-4 hours this may be what your baby needs from a nutritional point of view, especially if they are also eating their breakfast!
  • 10 months plus: so long as your little one is healthy and there are no concerns about their weight/development, most babies can go through the night without a feed – provided they are getting all their nutritional needs met during the day met with food alongside their milk feeds (breast or formula). 

A visual of what sleep looks like

Below is a hypnogram and represents a timeline of what the various stages of sleep look like for a child that has been through the 4 month sleep regression.

The highlighted red area illustrates the initial part of deep sleep where the growth hormone is released into the body. This sleep tends to be 2-3 hours in length. The highlighted yellow areas represent the lighter stages of sleep where a child will come to the edge of sleep every 45 minutes to 1 hour. Whether or not they will wake fully depends on their ability to link their sleep cycles. Remember though that dependant on age and nutritional needs your little one may still wake in the night for 1-2 feeds.

Remember, if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it!

If your little one is experiencing any issues in terms of night waking, please do get in touch. Book a free, no obligation call and we can talk about working together to get you a better night’s sleep.

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