Why Babies Sleep Differently

Newborn human babies come into the world vulnerable, dependent, and physiologically undeveloped. They need our loving support while their nervous system gradually learns to sleep properly.

It can take up to ten months for a baby to have a stable sleep-wake rhythm, and up to two or three years for a baby to fall asleep and sleep through the night on their own. Babies have short sleep cycles and are light sleepers; they wake up frequently and easily. This is perfectly normal: during the first two years of life, a baby’s brain undergoes rapid development – this is one reason why proper nutrition is so important. Babies also lose body heat quickly, and they sometimes forget to breathe in their cot. Their desire to be close to their parents is a primal instinct and a safety mechanism that remains important to this day. Babies don’t know that they are in a secure, three-room apartment, for example, where there are no wild animals that might want to eat them at night. This explains why babies often fall asleep only while being held in our arms, while nursing, or carried in a baby sling or wrap. This can be exhausting, but it’s worth it. The more babies realize they are safe and secure, the better they learn to welcome sleep and night-time as a friend.

Sleeping in the family bed and breastfeeding for similar sleep rhythm

According to Unicef, breastfed babies can and should sleep with their mothers. This facilitates frequent breastfeeding, which has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden infant death (SIDS) or cotdeath. It also allows mothers and babies to fall into a similar sleep rhythm, so they sleep deeply together and then enter a lighter sleep phase when the baby needs to be breastfed. Prolactin, the hormone responsible for breast milk, also helps a breastfeeding mother sleep better and feel more refreshed upon waking and not sleep-deprived. Non-breastfed babies should also sleep with their parents, but on their own mattress, for example in a bedside cot. To ensure that your child sleeps safely, consider the following tips.

Checklist: Ensuring your baby sleeps safely

  • Your baby should sleep on a simple, firm mattress, with no soft pillows or thick blankets that could cause suffocation or overheating.
  • Ensure there are no gaps in the bed frame where your baby could get trapped.
  • Your baby should not bed-share with other children, pets or soft toys.
  • Cover your baby with a properly sized baby sleeping bag instead of a loose blanket.
  • The safest sleep position for babies is on their back, until they can turn over by themselves.
  • Do not bed-share with your baby if you have consumed alcohol or drugs.
  • Breastfeeding babies should sleep directly next to their mother; bottle-fed babies should sleep on a separate surface close to their mother´s bed.
  • Never sleep with your baby on a sofa or arm-chair due to the risk of dropping or smothering your baby.

Helping your baby “descend” into sleep

Imagine yourself trying to land a commercial airplane. First, you have to reduce its cruising altitude and speed of approach. Then the plane must be guided into its descent and steered toward the landing strip. Shortly above the runway, you must gently place the plane on the ground, put on the brakes and allow it to roll into silence.

The same applies to our own tiny adventurers. Taking them along for a quick shopping trip, or getting home from work just before bedtime, are stimuli that can cause babies to accelerate back up to “cruise speed” and disrupts their bedtime routine. While more settled children may already be sleeping peacefully at 7:30 pm, others have returned to “full altitude” and must be guided through the entire “descent” anew.

Evening rituals to help baby fall asleep

Many babies are already tired out from the day by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, especially if they were in daycare. This is when we should start initiating their “descent” into evening slumber. Try to establish a soothing evening ritual with your baby around 4 pm or 5 pm. Nothing fancy – just a warm bath or a baby massage, or a quiet dinner by candlelight instead of a glaring kitchen light. Follow up with a nappy change, pyjamas and a baby sleeping bag if needed. Then, it’s off to bed. It doesn’t hurt to be in bed early, where you can comfortably breastfeed, cuddle and talk to your little one, maybe sing a lullaby. Be attentive, and your baby or toddler will “tell” you about their day as well. Some children scream themselves to sleep – in this case, check if they still want to nurse, be held or have a wet nappy. If everything seems alright, then it might be that your little one had an exciting day and is still processing all the new impressions or overtired. As parents, what we can do to help our child is simply to be there for them: hold them lovingly in our arms, breathe calmly and listen, allowing them to express themselves. This helps your baby fall asleep peacefully – so they can grow, learn and recharge their “battery” for the next day.


Nicola Schmidt

Science journalist and author of several books for parents

She is convinced that babies naturally know how to sleep properly. With her german project "artgerecht" Nicola explains to parents how babies develop mentally and physically healthy by nature. www.artgerecht-projekt.de