Normal Biological Sleep Patterns | Sleep Cycles | Night Wakings
One of the most common questions I receive either on the phone or online is "My baby is doing XYZ, is this normal?".
Since true sleep disorders are very rare, chances are the answer to your question is "yes your baby is normal", or "yes your toddler is normal."
The better question to ask is perhaps, "Can we improve on this?" and usually the answer is yes!
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There is a bit of confusion around whether or not sleep training is working against your child's natural biological sleep patters, and I can assure its not!
Wouldn't it be great if we could change your babies sleep cycle from 45 minutes to 2 hours, that would make naps easy!
But we can't.
What we can do is work with your babies natural biological sleep patterns to create the best possible sleep for you and your family.
In this article I am going to go over normal biological sleep patterns, and reasonable sleep expectations to ease any confusion you might be having.
Nap sleep cycles
"My baby will only nap for 45 minutes, are they normal?"... Yes 100% normal.
Around 12-16 weeks your babies nap sleep cycles emerge and these cycles are around 45 minutes long. Waking up after this sleep cycle is totally normal and to be expected.
Those unicorn babies you hear about who nap for 2 hours every lunch time... they still wake up after 45 minutes, their sleep cycle is no different to your babies.
Babies who nap for 1.5-2 hours at a time have mastered the skill of going back to sleep after a sleep cycle is over, they still wake fully every 45 minutes, but if we don't hear them, it is likely they simply roll over and go back to sleep.
Some babies naturally do this, and genetically speaking they are easy sleepers, other babies we teach them to do this with sleep training, and good sleep hygiene.
This is a skill some babies master as early as under 12 weeks, others its more like 4-6 months. But we assured no matter how old your baby is, its never too late to work on longer naps, and linking these sleep cycles together.
Longer more restorative naps are such a blessing when everything falls into place, you won't know yourself with 2 hours to cook, clean and mindlessly scroll Instagram, ok or maybe work... Your baby will thank you too!
Some easy changes listed below can help when your working on longer naps and teaching your baby to go back to sleep after a sleep cycle.
- Having appropriate awake windows, over tired and under tired babies struggle with their 45 minute sleep cycles. View our nap routines and awake windows in our online sleep program.
- White noise is your alley, it helps with both settling and re-settling.
- Having a dark sleep room eliminates distractions, and helps the body prepare for sleep physiologically with the right hormones.
- Being able to self settle is an important skill in babies over 4-6 months, if you are wanting to improve your babies naps. We can't expect a baby who relies on us to fall asleep, to be able to go back to sleep un-aided.
Night wake ups
"My baby wakes up every 1-2 hours at night, are they normal?"
"My toddler still wakes at night for a bottle, are they normal?"
Yes, yes, yes!
They are 100% normal in the sense that both of these things are not a sign your child has a sleep disorder.
Could we change this, so they didn't need to be re-settled or fed every 1-2 hours?
Could we stop your toddlers need for a bottle over night?
Overnight, just as your baby has sleep cycles in the day, your baby has sleep cycles and phases at night.It is very normal for your baby to wake up at the end of these cycles, and actually as an adult you wake up too!
No human "sleeps through" the night, never stirring or waking from a sleep cycle.If you own a fitbit or you've used a sleep tracking app, you will see a little graph that shows how frequently you woke and how much deep and light sleep you had. But you likely don't recall waking up at all!
Your children are the same, they wake at the end of their sleep cycles, and if they are reliant on something you do to get them back to sleep, they will cry out for this, whether its a feed, a rock, a cuddle, a bounce, a pat, or a combination.
Once we master self settling, and self re-settling, you'll only really hear from your baby if they are hungry, or upset due to being sick or similar.
The same goes for a toddler who is waking for a bottle, we can remove the bottle, and they will still wake up, thats normal, but they will have the skills to put themselves back to sleep and hopefully do it quietly..
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Breastfed babies wake more frequently at night
This is another common misconception, and you will often hear parents telling other parents who say "My baby wakes up every 2 hours at night to feed and their 6 months old, shouldn't this change now?"...
"No, it's normal for breastfed babies to wake more frequently than formula fed babies, you just need to feed them each time they wake up."
The bad science here, is that no; your breastfed baby doesn't have different sleep cycles to a formula fed baby, in fact this study, this study and this study all show breastfed babies sleeping for longer duration than formula fed babies.
Your babies sleep cycles are exactly the same as their formula fed friends, their wake ups are the same, they are normal!
But if you are wanting to establish longer periods of night sleep, what you will find breastfeeding parents do more than formula feeding parents is, feeding back to sleep at night.
This is a great way to quickly get your baby back to sleep, but if this is the only way you work on re-settling at night, then quickly your baby will depend on that feed to get back to sleep and not work on independently being able to go back to sleep.
Consequently we see the pattern of feeding every 2 hours, and both mum and baby becoming increasingly exhausted.
If you're concerned your baby isn't able to settle without a feed, here is some video evidence that this unicorn skill is possible as early as 3 months.
Early wake ups
"My baby or toddler wakes at 5am everyday and I CANNOT get them back to sleep, is this normal?"
Yes your child doesn't have a sleep disorder...
When you consider how long your child has been asleep when 5am rolls around, its no wonder children are hard to get back to sleep at this time.
There are two different situations to consider at 5am, and the first is the less likely of the two to be true for your child.
1. A small % of child are what we call low sleep needs, they simply need less sleep than the "average" demonstrated by large studies conducted by the international sleep foundation. These children need 9-11 hours at night instead of 11-12 hours, so then they sleep 7pm to 5am, they are simply done.
Now lots of parents want to believe this is their child, but then see signs of over tiredness in the day, grouchy grumpy child, struggles with food and tantrums or mood, waking at night, or struggling to wait for naps. These are all signs that your child isn't low sleep needs, and they do need to go back to sleep at 5am.
The second scenario which is more likely...
2. Your child has been asleep for 9-10 hours by the time 5am rolls around, their melatonin levels have dropped right back, their cortisol is rising, their biological clock is working towards "waking", they wake frequently between 3/4am and morning (this is a normal biological sleep pattern), and at one of these wake ups, they start to make noise, and we've inadvertently reinforced this wake up with our response.
Be assured, this is a normal sleep pattern, its a common annoyance of parents, but best of all, we CAN change it!
We can't change the fact that they wake, that is the normal part.
What we can change is the fact that they don't go back to sleep, they will dose and have small sleeps between 4am-6-7am, this pattern is normal, and we can work towards this with a good plan.
It is hard to change an early start, especially if the rest of your baby or toddlers sleep is good, it can take 3 weeks, which is why a lot of parents will quit this process and go back to getting their child up.
Lack of sleep hormones at this time, and lack of sleep drive, make it physiologically difficult to go back to sleep, which is why plans need to take this into account, and eliminate those reinforces.
But waking early in all likelihood doesn't mean your baby or toddler is a short sleep needs child.
Nap strikes are another fun part of being a parent to a child under 3.
Just when you think you have everything sorted, and your sleep is going well... BOOM - your baby refuses to nap.
"My child started to refuse their XYZ nap, this has been going on for 2 days now, is this normal?"
Your child is normal.
Nap strikes often occur during periods of physical developments such as crawling, walking, standing, and rolling.
Your baby might prefer to practice this skill instead of nap. A nap strike doesn't mean your baby is broken, and they don't have a sleep disorder.
Or when they are ready to drop a nap, this is where a good routine can actually help us understand out child's needs.
What we do know is that a nap strike should only last about 2-3 days if you have a strong routine, and your baby or toddler can usually self settle, and their awake windows are age appropriate.
If you find your nap strike is continuing for weeks on end, it is likely that the way you are trying to settle your baby or toddler is over stimulating for them, and helping them to stay awake and refuse their nap.
So is a nap strike normal?
Does it have to last for weeks and weeks and become the new "normal" in your house?
Napping is an important part of your child's daily sleep requirements, their little brains need regular naps to help them consolidate their learning from short term memory to long term memory.
They grow when they nap, and their immune systems strengthen.
Their appetites are regulated, and for toddlers especially their emotional needs are regulated, and we see less tantrums.
Naps are awesome, don't give up on them too soon!
Get access to all my nap plans in the online sleep program.