Healthy Sleep for Babies & Children

Healthy sleep for babies and children is very important. Sleep is a simple pleasure! It is also responsible for lots of very important functions that help to keep little ones healthy and happy.

Because they experience rapid growth and brain development, they need far more sleep than adults do.

Not so very long ago, sleep was rather a mysterious thing but now with modern science, we know far more about the functions and benefits of sleep – especially babies’ sleep. We understand how and why healthy sleep for babies and children is so important for their well being, and growth.

Resistance to infection

During nighttime sleep, there is an increase in the production of CYTOKINES.

These are proteins which act as messengers for the immune system.

When your baby sleeps, their immune system “remembers” how to recognise and react to dangerous antigens.

This helps them to resist and to fight infections.

Good sleep is especially valuable when they start going to classes, playgroups and daycare, as this is when they come into contact with lots of bugs!

Babies commonly have 6-12 bugs a year and although it’s tough for them to be constantly fighting off infections, it does ultimately strengthen their immune system.

A child’s 24 hour sleep pattern [circadian rhythm]

When babies are newborn, they don’t distinguish night from day. By staying very close beside you, they “share” your circadian rhythm.

After the first few weeks, they develop their own natural 24-hour sleep/wake cycle. They have a little internal biological “clock” which tells them the difference between night and day. 

This circadian clock [or biological clock] is situated in an area of the brain known as the hypothalamus.  To work well, it needs external clues such as differing levels of light and darkness. It also responds to conditions within your baby’s own body, such as temperature, hunger and hormone levels.

Getting into the rhythm!

You can help a child or adult to have a healthy, functioning circadian rhythm by helping them to have regular bedtimes and wake-up times. 

Generous exposure to daylight, especially in the morning, will help to set their biological clock to sleep well at night, so it’s good to get outside!

Even having breakfast in the brightest room in the house will help.

At night, having the room as dark as possible will help them sleep better. 

The different stages and types of sleep

When your baby goes to sleep at bedtime, they don’t just pass out and go into one level of unconsciousness. They wake naturally from time to time as they go through the different stages of sleep, and this is healthy and normal.

Your baby experiences periods of light sleep and deep sleep at different times of the night. They might shout or cry out or rock around the cot. Sometimes they have different facial expressions and seem to be very busy in their sleep. Much of their behaviour, as they sleep, is determined by which kind of sleep they are in.  

There are two main types, and these are rapid eye movement [REM ] sleep and non-rapid eye movement [NREM] sleep.

REM Sleep [Active/Light Sleep]

REM sleep happens when your baby is coming out of deep sleep, about an hour after they have first fallen asleep. It lasts for about 5 minutes.

This is when the brain becomes very active and dreaming tends to happen.

You will see their eyes moving rapidly under their eyelids and although their muscle tone is low at this time, you might see them make little twitching or jerking movements.

Their breathing speeds up and their mouths might move.

During REM sleep, the experiences that your baby has had during the day are stored in their “memory bank.” This memory consolidation is very important for learning. 

REM sleep is strongly connected to a child’s brain development. For an adult, about a quarter of a typical night is spent in REM. Babies spend about half the night in REM. As they mature, that time gradually decreases until they get to about five years old. Then their REM/NREM proportions are the same as an adult’s.

Gentle Baby Sleep Course led by experienced baby sleep therapist

NREM Sleep – [Deep Sleep]

This is the conventional sleep that we mean when we say that someone is “fast asleep.”  NREM sleep is broken down into three stages:

Stage 1: Becoming drowsy and nodding off but can still be woken up.

Stage one lasts from a few seconds to about five minutes. During it, your child might jerk or startle, but don’t panic – these “hypnic or hypnagogic jerks” are normal.

Stage 2: The beginning of falling into a deeper sleep

This stage lasts for about five to twenty-five minutes. Your baby is less likely to be disturbed by external noises but it is still possible.

Stage 3: The deepest sleep stage

Stage 3 sleep lasts for about thirty to forty-five minutes. It is also known as “delta sleep“ or “slow wave sleep” due to the brain wave patterns observed during sleep recordings.

During NREM sleep, your baby’s eyes will move slowly under their eyelids. They are more likely to lay still; their breathing is slow and regular and they look peaceful.

During NREM sleep, growth hormone is released and muscle growth and repair happen. Your child’s immune system becomes busy, producing cytokines. These are chemicals that help to protect them against and fight infections.  

When your baby was a newborn, up until the age of about six months, their sleep cycles were not fully developed. From about 6 months old, they sleep in cycles of about 50 – 60 minutes.

This sleep cycle is shorter than the adult one of 90 minutes. When they are about three or four years old, they will sleep in these longer, mature cycles.

Because babies and toddlers experience more REM [active] sleep than adults do, this means that they have a tendency to be more restless.

You will know this if you sleep in the same bed as them [or try to!]

Sleep hormones

As a parent, indeed as an adult, you will know just how much our hormone levels affect our functioning and well-being!

Hormones are our bodies’ chemical messengers that keep everything in balance, and when it comes to sleeping there are two main ones that it’s good to know about.

These are Melatonin and Cortisol.

Under the influence of the circadian clock, these two hormones should work in harmony to regulate your baby’s sleep and wake patterns. If they go to sleep at night with high levels of cortisol, it can lead to very broken sleep and/or early waking. Putting your baby to bed later because they wake very early in the morning may be counterproductive!

Melatonin

Melatonin is sometimes called “the hormone of darkness.” It helps your baby to fall asleep and to stay asleep.

After the age of about three months old, babies naturally make this miracle sleep aid all by themselves.

It is stimulated by daylight and produced in the pineal gland.

As the evening approaches, melatonin levels naturally increase, getting them ready to fall asleep.

Cortisol

Cortisol is produced in the cortex of the adrenal gland. It is the hormone associated with wakefulness.

Later in the night, as morning approaches, levels of this “awake hormone” begin to rise, and this helps your baby to wake up for the day.

Cortisol is also a stress hormone and sometimes a baby will produce too much of it, causing them to be wakeful (even when they are still tired.)

High cortisol levels can prevent a baby from falling asleep at bedtime or getting back to sleep when they wake too early in the morning.

Sleep pressure

Sleep is influenced by the circadian rhythm and hormone levels; but there is also another really important factor that affects the way that your baby sleeps. This is called homeostasis, and it is the way the body regulates and maintains its health and balance. Things like body temperature and hunger levels are controlled by the body’s homeostasis  – and so is sleep.  To feel sleepy, we all need to experience a rise in sleep pressure. Sleep pressure builds up when we are awake and we call these periods of wakefulness, wake windows.

Wake windows

When we refer to a baby or child’s wake window, we mean the periods of time when they are not sleeping. 

Wake windows change as a baby matures and also in other situations such as when they are unwell or if they have been sleep deprived and are making up a “sleep debt.”

Very young babies struggle to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time and therefore, their wake windows are very short. As they get older and build up stamina, their wake windows widen. This means, that from about 3 years old, a child can manage a wake window of about 12 hours.

During the wake windows, babies & children experience a chemically driven* gradual rise in sleep pressure [sleep drive.] It is this that makes them feel sleepy, and helps them to fall asleep. 

If the wake window is too short, they might struggle to settle to sleep. If it is too long, they can become overtired and then find it difficult to relax and drift off.

So it’s good to know what the average wake windows are like for babies and children of various ages. You also need to recognise your own child’s sleepy signs. Each child has slightly different sleep needs and wake windows. 

* The neurotransmitter Adenosine influences the need for sleep and levels of it build up as energy is expended. 

How much sleep do they need?

This is the question parents ask the most!

Babies vary in how much sleep they need, but here is a guide to the averages – up to school age.

If you think that your baby isn’t getting this much sleep, why not keep a simple sleep diary or log their sleep on an app?

Having a record will give you a realistic picture of how much sleep they are actually getting.

Don’t forget to factor in their naps and time spent snoozing during a feed or a cuddle!

Babies are amazingly resilient and even if they have been a bit sleep-deprived, they can soon make up any sleep debt.

Further help

If you’re struggling with your baby’s sleep either now or in the future, I am here to help you.

My books

My bestselling books give you the tools to help your baby and yourself get a good night’s sleep. They are full of expert, practical advice and case studies. Each book teaches you to create your baby or child’s personal sleep plan and is written in a clear and accessible style.

They are available in all formats from Amazon and other booksellers.

My courses

When your baby is a bit older if you need help with their sleep, have a look at my sleep courses.

My courses are a mix of video, graphics and easy-to-read text. They are a great way to access my expert help – from your phone, tablet or laptop. The courses have no expiry date and are updated frequently. The Gentle Sleep Course is very comprehensive, easy to dip in and out of and is very empowering.

The Early Waking Course is concise and accessible – it takes around an hour to complete and it may be the best hour you’ve ever spent!

Both of the courses contain helpful schedules for day and night time sleep.

My 1:1 consultations

If you choose to book a one-to-one consultation with me, you will receive my expert advice along with a copy of my Gentle Sleep Solutions book and four follow up support emails.

You will be in very safe, experienced hands and I treat every parent and child with kindness. As a qualified health professional, I can help if your baby or you have medical needs. I have helped over 15,000 families from all over the world to get a good night’s sleep.

See my reviews on Trustpilot

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