Sleep Patterns and REM Sleep

Our sleep patterns can be broken into two basic types: REM sleep and non-REM sleep. REM is an acronym for Rapid Eye Movement. During REM sleep, a person's eyeballs move around rapidly, perhaps because they are “looking at” the people or things they are dreaming about.

In babies, it is not only the eyeballs that are active during REM sleep. In fact, when talking about infants, the terminology used for the two types of sleep is often “active sleep” (REM) and “quiet sleep” (non-REM). Babies in active sleep may move their arms and/or their legs in addition to their eyes. They may also coo or make other noises. This is in a way equivalent to talking in their sleep. Their eyes may even be partly open. This does not indicate that they are not sleeping. It also does not indicate that they are experiencing a tummy ache or other discomfort. It does not signify a problem.


My baby is very active during part of the night when she is sleeping. Does this prevent her from getting the rest she needs?

No, a baby who experiences “active sleep” is still getting the degree of sleep and amount of rest that she needs. Even if she coos, whimpers, or moves her body or limbs and even if her eyes are partly open, she is still getting a good night's sleep.

According to Richard Ferber, M.D., author of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, unborn babies develop sleep patterns while still in the uterus. By the sixth or seventh month of your pregnancy, your baby is capable of REM sleep and soon thereafter begins to experience non-REM sleep. A newborn baby, on falling asleep, immediately enters the REM sleep phase, or active sleep. At around three months old, the baby will first enter non-REM sleep, or quiet sleep, when she falls asleep and will maintain this pattern from then on throughout her lifetime.

The proportion of time a baby spends in REM sleep, as opposed to non-REM sleep, is greater than it is in adults or even in older children. The reason for this is one of life's mysteries, but it's nonetheless a fact. As the baby grows older, he'll spend proportionately more time in non-REM, or quiet, sleep, and less time in REM, or active, sleep.


Because you want your baby to learn that nighttime is for sleeping and that daytime is for being awake, it's useful to put your baby to sleep in a darkened room at night. If his crib is in your room for the first few months, keep the lights low while your baby is asleep, even when you're in the room. If his crib is in a room he shares with a sibling, try to keep the lights as low as is practical when the older child is still awake and the baby is supposed to be sleeping.

Sleep Patterns in Babies

A baby's sleep pattern early in life typically involves from two to four hours of sleep at a time, followed by a period of wakefulness, a pattern that may recur around the clock with no regard to whether it's day or night. Your baby has spent the first nine months of her existence in your uterus, where it is always dark, and it will take her a while to associate light with activity and with being awake and alert to what's going on around her.

Differences in sleep patterns among adults are very normal. The same is true among babies. Though certain patterns are average, a deviation from that pattern is usually still quite normal.

Babies are individuals. Just as babies begin to demonstrate a rudimentary but recognizable personality at an early age (“She's a happy baby,” “He's a fussy baby,” “She's a placid baby,” “He's so alert and interested!”), they also show their recognizable differences, one from the other, in other ways, and one of these is in sleep patterns. So if you know someone with a baby the same age as yours who sleeps more, or less, or simply at different hours, don't worry about it. We're all different … babies, too.


The first six weeks are frequently the toughest for the parents, as it is around the age of six weeks that your baby is most likely to begin differentiating day from night, sleeping longer during the nighttime while remaining awake for longer stretches during the day. Please do not be alarmed if this transition takes place earlier or later in your baby. Such variations are quite normal.

New parents tend to worry that their children aren't eating enough, sleeping enough, or reaching the various developmental stages soon enough. “Is she normal?” “Is he all right?” The fact is that most babies sleep enough, whether they're getting ten hours of sleep or twenty in each twenty-four hour cycle. Often it's not enough for the parents, whose own sleep is interrupted and whose daytime hours are taken up by this new and need-filled family member, but that's quite a different problem than the baby's needs not being met.

Baby's Bedtime

There is no one “right” hour to put a baby to bed. Typical bedtimes range from 5:30 P.M. to 8:00 P.M., and by the same token, your baby's wake-up time might be as early as 5:00 A.M. or as late as 8:00 A.M. This will depend in part on his own internal circadian rhythms, in part on the way you've programmed him to conform to your family's habits, and in part on his sleep needs.

What is important is that you get him on some kind of schedule as early as you can and remain as consistent to that schedule as is practical. While rigidity is no virtue, you should maintain a reasonably consistent sleep schedule and put your baby to sleep at the same time every night, or close to it. If he is already eating strained foods or cereal, feed him about one hour before his bedtime at the same time every evening. (See Chapter 2 for an in-depth discussion of feeding.)

Of course, if your baby is clearly tired before his usual bedtime, you can put him to bed earlier than usual. Don't worry that he'll wake up too early as a result. If the baby is that tired, chances are he'll sleep longer than usual and wake up right around his usual time. But if not and he does wake up early the next morning, just put him down for his nap a little earlier than usual that day. He may nap a little longer than usual. Then, that night, you can settle him into bed at his usual time.

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