Sleep and the circadian rhythm
Babies will sleep according to their individual needs. Their need for sleep varies between 12 and 20 hours a day. Also the length of continuous sleep between babies varies widely, as does the number and length of their daily naps.
A newborn baby will benefit if the family keeps to a regular daily schedule. Even though the baby will initially fall asleep and wake up at their own pace, they will gradually learn to distinguish between day and night with the help of their family. During daytime, life is about light, sound, action, tender care and interaction, while at night we settle down to go to bed by creating a suitable atmosphere for sleeping. The soundscape at home becomes silent as you turn off the TV and other media devices, and towards the night the lighting will also become softer. The atmosphere at home will be tranquil, safe and inviting sleep.
During the day, your baby will enjoy social activities, which help with their development. Good sleeping habits are also supported by days with a positive atmosphere, happy age-appropriate playtimes, sufficient nourishment and spending time outdoors. At night, both children and adults will feel the need to calm down and sleep. During the early months, the baby will wake up several times a night to eat, but otherwise care should be kept to a minimum. The baby’s circadian rhythm will gradually conform with the rest of the family’s routines.
A clear and calming series of routines repeated every evening will prepare the baby for bedtime. These routines help your baby to transition from the active daytime interaction to night-time rest. The routines may include a bath, putting on a night nappy and pyjama, hugging, and giving the baby their evening milk in a calm atmosphere with dim lighting. Once the first teeth erupt, brushing them must be added to your evening routines. You can start following a set of age-appropriate evening routines even with a newborn, and these routines can be performed by the mother, father or another important adult figure in the baby’s life. After the routines, a breastfeeding mother will give the baby their evening milk.
Parents can discuss, perhaps with a professional, which routines seem to best calm their baby. You should help your baby settle down to bed at night when the baby is ready to do so – not too early and not too late. Babies have various ways of letting you know they are tired: they can rub their eyes, reach for breast, yawn or cry and be fussy in order to express that they feel tired. If the baby has had time to start crying hard, it may be more difficult to settle them down back to sleep. A tired baby needs rest and sleep. Babies usually fall asleep quite quickly after giving out little sleepy sounds, cries or babbling.
Even newborns can be placed in their own bed to sleep, and this way you can make their bed a normal, familiar place for the baby to sleep during day and night. However, newborns and babies a few months old will usually fall asleep during their last evening feeding and wake up several times a night to eat. A baby can sleep in a co-sleeping cot (a baby’s bed next to the parents’ bed) or a separate crib in the parents’ bedroom, or you can choose the option of co-sleeping. When sharing a bed with your baby, as with the other options, you must ensure safe sleeping. A parent sleeping next to their baby must not smoke, be under the influence of intoxicants or medication that affects the central nervous system, or be overly tired. However, normal tiredness due to lack of sleep is fine when co-sleeping.
The sleeping surface must be firm. Co-sleeping with a prematurely born baby is not recommended. It is not safe for a baby to sleep on the sofa or armchair. In an adults’ bed, too, you must make sure that the baby cannot fall off it. The safest position for babies to fall asleep in is on their backs until they learn to turn in their sleep on their own.
As your baby grows, you can help them fall asleep on their own by laying them down in their own bed to sleep after the evening routines. A parent can signal with their presence and hand that the baby’s own bed is a safe place to sleep in. Even then, the baby will not require the parent to constantly stay by their side, and instead the parent can return to the baby to calm them if the baby is making more demanding sounds. The baby will feel safe when they feel an adult’s heavy, calmly stroking palm (= ‘paw’) on their lower back or bottom. Learning to fall asleep independently and in their own bed is part of a baby’s normal development and one of the necessary skills.
As the child develops further and learns to crawl, they may again begin waking up during the night. The new movement patterns the child is learning are popping into their mind, even at night. This stress and annoyance is a positive part of the baby’s development and is not necessarily connected to hunger. Here, too, a parent’s presence and a calming hand may be enough to settle the baby back down. If the gentle strokes are not sufficient and the child does not stop crying, you can pick them up to help them calm down and lower them back into their bed once they are no longer crying. The child will learn to trust that the parent will come and help them go back to sleep, when necessary.
A person’s sleep cycle is divided into two main phases: the REM sleep and deep sleep. The same applies to newborns and small children.
The REM sleep of a small baby is active and delicate: the baby moves a lot, makes noises and even opens their eyes without being awake. A baby can be woken up or may stir on their own easily. Deep is more even and rhythmic. The non-rapid eye movement sleep has four consecutive phases of deepness, after which the sleep becomes less deep. During deep sleep the whole body rests. Deep sleep is vital, because the brain’s energy reserves fill up during this phase.
The rhythmic cycle of a baby’s sleep from REM sleep to deep sleep is 50 minutes. For an adult, this cycle is 1.5 hours. When the baby wakes up at night, the adult is often in deep sleep and does not understand right away what is happening and may therefore be irritated and angry. Understanding this difference between child’s and adult’s sleeping cycles helps the adult to cope with the night time awakenings: irritation at night is not caused by bad parenthood, but simply by the differences between biological clocks.
A newborn baby will typically eat every few hours, including at night. This is very important to ensure their healthy growth and the mother’s sufficient lactation. If you begin teaching your baby the difference between night and day from early on and supporting their skill of falling asleep independently, the number of night feedings usually decreases automatically. Typically, a baby under 12 months of age will, however, eat at least one or two times per night.
If a six-month-old child repeatedly wakes up during the night and demands to be breastfed in order to fall asleep, the family may want to start teaching the baby a more independent way of falling asleep. The home sleep school, or 'paw approach', is a good and safe method for the baby.