Nothing is more complicated than a baby’s sleep pattern. It often takes several months for them to learn how to sleep like an adult. So, as paediatrician Marie Thirion points out; it is best to be patient…
0 – 2 months: The Big Sleep
A newborn baby keeps the good habits of its life in utero (in the womb): sleeping between 16 to 20 hours a day. “Each sleep cycle lasts around 50 minutes. It consists of a cycle of restless sleep, followed by a bout of calm sleep. In general, a baby links together 4 – 5 cycles in a row, in three to four hour time-slots, without having to worry just yet whether it is day or night,” explains Marie Thirion, paediatrician. But what is the difference between a ‘calm’ and ‘restless’ sleep? During a calm sleep, a baby is completely still, but their muscles remain tonic: they may often have clenched fists. Their breathing is regular, and they will have a peaceful expression on their face. During a restless sleep, a baby may kick and squirm, pulling facial expressions such as grinning, pouting or little faces of disgust. “They do not need to be awoken, and nothing is wrong! If we record the electrical activity from a baby’s brain at this moment, the outline is not dissimilar to that of an adult who is dreaming. At the age of 1 or 2 months, we do not know if a baby is really dreaming, but in any case, important things are happening in their brain during this restless sleep: establishing the nervous system and learning different emotions,” explains the Paediatrician. In other words, this is not the time to disturb your baby or to pick them up for a cuddle.
2 – 9 months: The Time Difference
As a baby’s brain develops towards maturity, so do its’ sleeping patterns change and progress. “From the age of 2 months, sleep cycles become longer and reach up to 70 minutes. It is no longer a case of restless sleep, but paradoxical, or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and the ‘calm’ phase becomes slow-wave (or NREM) sleep. The difference is that these types of sleeping patterns are less fragile and more stable. From this point on, the child is able to sleep for between 6 – 8 hours in a row,” explains Marie Thirion.Could this really be the end of sleepless nights? Indeed for some babies, this stage happens around 4 months of age, sometimes even earlier. And for others, much, much later…unfortunately for the parents! “It takes some children longer than others to establish a regular biological rhythm alternating between day and night, to coincide their internal clock with the social clock that states we are to sleep at night and be awake in the day.” emphasises the paediatrician. No two babies are alike when it comes to sleep. It varies from one to the other: genetics have decided this, much in the same way as there are big and little sleepers, early-birds and night-owls.
Until the age of 4 – 5 months, help your baby to settle by respecting their rhythm and intervening as little as possible. Let them sleep when they wish, without waking them at certain times, even for feeding. Unless, of course, your paediatrician has recommended otherwise, for example if your baby is underweight. From the age of 4 – 5 months, if you baby is not sleeping at night, you could provide them with “time-givers”, which will help them become aware of the alternation between day and night. “When your baby sleeps during the day, it is better not to keep them in total darkness and let them see the natural light outside. They should also understand that social activity is reserved for the day-time: night-time feeds are not the ideal time for sustained conversations, or games. Finally, establishing fixed hours for meals, bedtime and waking up will also help your baby to find their rhythm.” advises the paediatrician.
Plan of Action for Parents on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown:
Every night, it’s the same story: they struggle to get to sleep, they wake up and you are up and down during the night. “If your baby is older than 8 or 9 months, it could be a case of sleeping difficulties,” explains Marie-JosepheChallamel, a Paediatric sleep expert. “Often these problems arise in the absence of set routines and boundaries. For a good night’s sleep, a child needs to be guided by a securely implemented routine. If bedtime is set at 8pm, then bedtime is 8pm – and this is non-negotiable.” she adds. But how do we regain control once the plan is out the window? Answer: The 5-10-20 method. After going through the stages of the bedtime routine, leave your child alone in their bedroom, even if they begin to cry. After 5 minutes, re-enter the room and tell them softly that they must sleep alone, then go out again. If they continue to cry, wait 10 minutes this time before going back to them. After reassuring them, leave their room again. Do not return before 20 minutes on the dot! If the crying continues, wait 20 minutes between each further visit. “Although some parents may find it difficult to apply, this method is extremely effective: over the course of 4 or 5 nights, the problems will be resolved.” ensures the specialist.
From 6 – 9 months: The Calm Before the Storm
This time around, that’s it; finally they are sleeping like an adult. How do we know? “Your baby no longer falls suddenly into an agitated sleep, instead they drift off calmly into NREM sleep, at first sleeping lightly, then much deeper. The act of falling asleep is much softer.” explains Doctor Marie Thirion.
From the age of 9 months onwards, sleep cycles change form, each made up of 5 stages; 4 of paradoxical (or REM) sleep, and one of NREM sleep. Your baby will link these cycles together over the course of 8, 10 or even 12 hours in a row! However, this is not to say they won’t wake up from time to time… “The first part of the night will, in general, pass by without stirring, being made up mostly of REM sleep. But around midnight, as the NREM sleep phase becomes more apparent, frequent stirs may occur, often in-between each cycle. Some babies have no trouble in getting back to sleep by themselves, but others cry and call for their parents,” explains the paediatrician.
You may be wondering why this ‘paradoxical’ sleep is called so.The reason is, paradoxically, during this type of sleep, a baby’s brain is overloaded with activity! It has been proven that babies dream between the age of 18-24 months, but that is not all. This sleep phase also contributes to cerebral development, and is also key in terms of building memory. Studies have in fact shown a rise in the rate of paradoxical sleep in babies who have been involved in some form of learning process during the day. What about REM sleep? “REM sleep is the platform for numerous hormonal secretions, notably the growth hormone. This encourages bodily development, reinforces the skeleton and tones muscles.” explains the Doctor. It is also during this type of sleep that cellular divisions allow the skin to regenerate and reinforces immune cells protecting the body from attacks. Whilst paradoxical (or REM) sleep is linked with the brain, the role of NREM sleep is to repair and maintain the body.
Around the age of 18 – 24 months, children can begin to experience nightmares. “They can be frequent during periods of great acquisition, such as toilet training, learning to speak, or in the case of a big event that may be difficult for them to deal with, such as getting a new Nanny or the birth of a younger brother or sister,” adds Marie Thirion. One thing’s for sure, nightmares aren’t pleasant, as they can wake children up (and it’s the parents who have to come and console them!) but – they are very useful. Thanks to them, a child can relive any distressing events of the day, often by disguising them in the form of scenarios filled with with monsters and wizards, thus getting rid of them. Nightmares would appear to be a good solution, then, for banishing distress from the subconscious!
The Paediatrician’s Advice
The age of 6-9 months is prime time to instil good habits in your child…and to get rid of the bad ones. “If they are used to sleeping with the aid of a milk bottle, or in their mummy’s arms, they will require the exact same scenario after each of their night time wake-ups in order to get back to sleep, and this is when they will ask for their parents. It is therefore better to help them shrug off these dependencies as quickly as possible and let them learn to get to sleep by their own means,” says Marie Thirion. The famous blanket can be a big help with this; if your child doesn’t have one, offer them a selection of toys from which they can choose a ‘bedtime buddy’. You could also implement a routine before bedtime; a song, some music perhaps, or a bedtime story. These little gestures, although seemingly simple, when repeated identically every night, reassure your child and will help them to calmly fall sleep.
If you haven’t already done so, now is also the time to move them into their own bedroom, or in any case a separate room from your own. You could start by firstly introducing this during afternoon naps, which may be less distressing than at night. At this stage, in effect, they need to be alone in order to gain independence / find an independent method of falling asleep/independently. Your child is now used to waking up during the second part of the night. It is not necessary for you to be tempted to intervene, seeing their big open eyes in search of their thumb or blanket. You would only be getting sucked in… but each to their own!
A good afternoon nap for a peaceful night’s sleep
As circumstances dictate, you may be tempted to phase out early-afternoon naps as soon as possible. But this would be an error… “Right after a meal, we have an almost psychological need to rest, and napping satisfies this. For a large majority of children up to the age of 5, a nap is absolutely necessary for their well-being, emotional stability and the quality of their learning ability” says Dr. Marie-JosepheChallamel. “If a child does not take a nap when they need one, you will notice straight away; from late afternoon they will become restless, aggressive, irritable and will easily throw tantrums. The result is that come bedtime, they will be in a state of excitement, hardly in the mood for sleeping. Their night’s sleep is hindered due to a lack of sleep during the day” she explains. And if your child refuses to nap? Convince them that it is not a form of punishment – by setting them a good example yourself over the weekend!
This article was written on behalf of www.nanniesinc.com, who work closely with London nannies to provide permanent full-time and live-in nannies as well as maternity nurses.