Light Sleep vs. Deep Sleep

From Restless Nights to Sweet Dreams - Baby Sleep Success Starts with Deep Learning!

All babies are both light and deep sleepers, just like us! It is in our biological sleep make-up.

We all shift from light sleep to deep sleep and back again several times a night. Some babies spend more time in light sleep before slipping into deeper sleep, and others go from light sleep to deep sleep much more quickly.

Deep sleepers are defined as those who have their longest periods of deep, restful sleep during the first stages, while light sleepers have more periods of REM or dreaming sleep. This can mean that light sleepers wake up feeling more rested than deep sleepers because they have experienced more periods of dreaming.

To help you understand this a bit more, we will break down the different sleep stages. The first phase is NREM. It has three tiers that we cycle through.

  • Stage 1 (N1) takes place shortly after falling asleep and is short-lived. This is also your light sleep stage. You can easily be awoken. 
  • Stage 2 (N2) is the second stage after N1, your brain activity slows down, and your muscles start to relax.
  • Stage 3 (N3) is the last stage, where deep sleep is found. It is also possible to have some body movements, but it is very hard to come out of this state. This stage, also known as “deep” sleep, as it is the most restorative form of sleep where our bodies heal and grow.

Babies are still developing their sleep habits, and therefore they are still adjusting and learning how to get into the N3 stage. Until your baby has learned proper sleep tools for handling nights, waking up again is not uncommon for some of them! This can take some time for them to develop these skills before you see any improvement. Some can be quick adapters, and some will need those extra weeks. It is best to adjust accordingly with an eat, play, sleep routine and along with their own individual wake windows.

  • REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is the last sleep phase people cycle through ... This can cause movement of eyes, and the eyelids may even flutter. Your muscles may even feel paralyzed during this cycle. This is the stage where development growth occurs as our brain is processing and consolidating memories. Your baby is growing while they are sleeping!

Newborns only have two of these phases, NON-REM and REM, and spend equal amounts in both until about 16wks old when they transition to more mature sleep stages that mimic adults. This is the age where that dreaded four-month regression can start to be noticed. At birth, most infants spend between 40 minutes - 90 minutes asleep at each session during their first year. Many variables such as feeding schedules, wake windows, etc…influence the total amount of sleep they will get per day, and not all babies will have the same pattern during their first year. 

  • Newborns and infants need a lot of sleep in order to grow and develop. A newborn's sleep cycle lasts about 16 hours, and an infant's sleep cycle is about 12 hours. This means that it is common for babies to go through 2-3 periods of deep, non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep during the day and 3-4 periods of REM sleep at night.
  • A new study conducted by researchers from the University of South Australia concludes that babies go through three sleep cycles every night. The first cycle is two hours long, and the second and third cycles both last an hour and a half. These sleep periods often follow a pattern. The findings also suggest that newborns aged 0-16wks spend most of their time in REM sleep, which is where they most likely dream.

There is a misconception that all babies sleep for the same amount of time each day.  Much like adults, infants (even newborns) cycle through periods of deep and light sleep and even periods of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) which is considered “dreaming” sleep. These sleep cycles continue to change as the baby grows, but the average infant will wake up every two hours. 

  • Most children average a total of 2-3hrs in a night of being awake up till five years. After this stage, the number drops with some reaching under 1 hour by ten years due mainly, as an adult for reasons unknown we continue sleeping longer than what is needed!

SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?

I know this can be information overload, and you may feel confused about how this applies to your sleepless baby. 

As an International Sleep Consultant, I have been very blessed to work with a number of families around the world and work hands-on overnight shifts as a Newborn Care Specialist. Those families are experiencing major sleep deprivation and just simply lost about how and why their child is sleeping as poorly as they are. One of the first things I do when consulting is examine those daily logs and asking necessary analytical questions to get greater insight on what could be obstructing their sleep.  

Here is the hard truth, the only way to overcome this obstacle is to teach them the proper tools needed to get into deep sleep themselves without those external props that need to be provided by you. In this way, your child learns independence by developing self-control and self-regulation. Being an independent sleeper becomes an important necessary life skill, not just a means to an end. 

  • The single most important step when restructuring your child's sleep patterns is to eliminate those external sleep props preventing your child from being able to self-assess. I am referring to any materials or objects your child uses to get to sleep that they cannot replicate themselves. 

 Some props and associations are: 

  • rocking to sleep
  • falling asleep in someone's arms
  • feeding to sleep
  • If you are constantly on a loop re-enacting that sequence your child used to get to sleep and they are not able to get back to sleep without this replay from you, then this is what would be referred to as a "negative" sleep prop. This is a huge enabler to multiple middle-of-the-night wake-ups and short naps. Waking up in the morning with only fragmented sleep under your belt is unhealthy for all parties involved!
  • Now, these props are only a problem if you are feeling overwhelmed and sleep deprivation is occurring on both sides. Otherwise, they can also be considered healthy, and there is nothing wrong with using these associations and props. Feel free even to layer them up to prevent dependency. 

A very common prop, however that starts as a positive and quickly develops into a negative is a dummy or more commonly known as a pacifier, or some refer to it as a soother. The reason why this prop is encouraged early on is to follow safe sleep guidelines in the prevention of SIDS. If your child takes a dummy and needs it to sleep, there is nothing wrong with that, but if they are awoken every time it falls out, and you need to go in and replace it, then this is preventing their own sleeping capabilities, aka it is now a negative. 

  • A good fact to keep in mind with dummies is that after six months old, extensive overuse of dummies can increase your child’s chance of an ear infection, so slowly taking away the dependency before this age is recommended by the AAP and the NICHD. This will also help prevent what I call the dreaded dummy dance.

Routine, awake windows, associations, and props are four important pillars needed to teach your child how to become a self soother. These pillars, in conjunction with a self-soothing method, form your child's foundation towards independent sleep. This is how long-term healthy sleep habits are made.

  • As always, this foundation works together through a series that starts with implementing an ideal bedtime ritual. Then you slowly progress into wake-up times, daytime routines, feeds, and adequate daytime sleep.
  • However, parents who have not been successful with the routine, awake windows, associations, and props have been successful with the fifth pillar: training your child to be a self soother. This is sleep training. This is a quick fix but can be very hard on both mom and baby and is not always applied long term.

You need consistency and follow-through in order for it all to work correctly! Our brains gravitate towards patterns of repetition. Once you have a plan, stick with it and give it time. Work on first building foundation before deciding on a method to help produce further independent sleep skills, aka a self soother.

  • A self soother can reassess, readjust and resume sleeping all on their own! The best part is that no parent intervention is needed and no dreaded crying it out! It takes continuous practice to get your child to this level. This is daily repetition and exercise. 

Many parents believe that their baby's sleep patterns are part of their genetic makeup, and there is no way to repair it. This is not the case as you now know! After reading this article, I hope you feel more informed and educated on how to tackle your child's sleep complexity. When you do, both baby and parents will fulfill those sleep needs and have long-term sleep success. Be patient. Be loving. Be understanding. While independent sleep isn't accomplished overnight, it can be achieved!

Cheers to Sleep for Everyone!

 

Chanlyn Imler

Chanlyn is a Certified Pediatric Sleep Coach and Newborn Care Specialist with Sound Sleep 4 Bubbies. She has dedicated her career to assisting families feel informed, confident, and empowered. She strives to help fill in those missing gaps when it comes to their child's development, growth, nutrition, and sleep. Chanlyn listens to each family's needs and wants individually and creates a plan that suits them. Her expertise exceeds far past just sleep, as she comprehends this is just one component in your child's life. Chanlyn is also registered with the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants and a Certified Sleep Sense Consultant. You can follow her on Instagram for more helpful tips, tricks, and information. Whatever your child may be going through, Chanlyn is always happy to listen and give a helping hand!


2 comments


  • Chanlyn Imler

    Hi,

    A prop is neither negative or positive as it attunes to your households needs and preferences. However after 16wks, sometimes younger, that nighttime stretch becomes more optimal and longer. This is when they can really achieve deep restorative sleep. This also becomes your longest stretch as well. If the prop your child is using to get to sleep is hindering this for themselves and you then it would not be a positive prop. Example is some babies can be fed to sleep and not wake-up every 2hrs but some are fed to sleep and will wake up at the end of their cycle and need that exact replay of how they first went down. Therefor this prop is not being a positive influence on your child building and developing long term independent sleep skills. The key to supporting your child’s sleep needs and yours is understanding what is helping or hurting everyone’s sleep.


  • Aya

    What could be a positive prop, examples please


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