Sleep in Infants

There is something heavenly blissful about watching an infant sleep.  Their peaceful little faces, lost in dreams of breast milk.  Now, if you’re that baby’s parent, then blissful is an understatement!  This is because you know that not only does a sleeping baby give you a little ‘me-time’ but a well-rested baby is a happy baby and that makes everyone in the family happy.

Importance of Sleep in Infancy

In infancy, sleep is at a lifetime maximum with babies spending up to 70% of each 24 hours asleep.  It is during sleep that growth of a child’s brain and body occurs, as well as consolidation of memory and learning.  Ensuring adequate, uninterrupted sleep is extremely important for growth and development in infancy.  As such, anything that disrupts sleep can have negative impacts on physical health as well as cognitive development.

Development of Sleep

During infancy, sleep patterns are immature and distinctly different to those seen in adults.  Infants experience two sleep states known as quiet sleep and active sleep and spend approximately 50% of sleep time in each with a sleep cycle of approximately 45-50 minutes.  Between 6 and 12 months, sleep begins to mature into a more adult pattern characterised by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.  Quiet sleep is the immature equivalent of non-REM sleep whilst active sleep is the pre-cursor of REM sleep.  Infants experience a much higher drive to sleep than adults in order to ensure that adequate sleep quantity is achieved.

Sleep distribution is also significantly different during infancy.  In newborn infants, sleep occurs at any time of the day or night and sleep-wake cycles are largely influenced by feed times.  From approximately 6 months sleep begins to consolidate during the night with a longer sleep period overnight and a few short naps during the day.

Sleep Disorders in Infancy

Some infants will have difficulty settling as they become reluctant to disengage from a care-giver, with some infants even experiencing separation anxiety, resulting in a resistance of sleep.  In order to help avoid this, it is important to encourage children to self-soothe by placing them in their cot to sleep when they become drowsy and allowing them to fall asleep independent of a parent or care-giver.

During infancy, the main sleep disorder is the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also known as SIDS or cot death.  This devastating condition occurs when an otherwise healthy infant dies during sleep with no explanation for the death found following a thorough investigation.  Despite years of research the exact mechanisms underlying SIDS remain unclear, however, a number of risk factors have been identified, many of which include unsafe sleeping practices.  In order to reduce the risk of SIDS, parents can create a safe sleeping environment for their infant by ensuring that the infant is always placed on its back to sleep, the infants face and head are free of bedding, the infant is in a smoke-free environment both before birth and after and the infant has its own cot to sleep in but is in the same room as an adult for the first 6-12 months.  Following implementation of safe sleeping public education campaigns, the incidence of SIDS has been dramatically reduced.

Tips to Improve Sleep In Infants

As in adults, creating a bedtime routine and a healthy sleep environment are important for good sleep during infancy.  Some tips to help your baby sleep include:

  • Make sure baby is well fed and comfortable, with a clean nappy
  • Ensure the sleep environment is safe, quiet and dark
  • Ensure baby isn’t too hot or cold
  • Observe baby’s sleep and learn to recognise signs of sleepiness
  • Put baby in cot when drowsy, not asleep
  • Encourage baby to fall asleep independently and self-soothe