A sleeping baby. Is there anything more sweet or peaceful than this? One of my favourite things to do when my babies were young was to watch them sleep when it was possible. If you have ever had a baby who struggles with sleep then you understand the feeling of finally getting them to sleep independently. It can feel like a huge undertaking initially but it is so rewarding once they are sleeping through the night and going down well for naps. What a big accomplishment mama! However, although it may seem that everything is going well, be prepared for surprises. The baby may be napping beautifully, going into their crib perfectly, sleeping through until…… 5 am. Early wake-ups! They are no fun. Just when you think you have managed to get baby on a great schedule you are plagued by a baby who wants to start their day before the sun comes up. Let’s talk about why this may be happening.
Everyone has a sleep cycle. A sleep cycle is an oscillation of different stages of sleep that a person goes through until waking in the morning. A newborn will experience two stages. These stages are referred to as active and quiet sleep. A sleep cycle for a newborn can last around 50 minutes. As a child gets older their sleep stages evolve and usually around 6 months of age an infant will start to experience four stages of sleep. An infant’s sleep cycle will remain around 50 minutes, lengthening to around 90-110 minutes by school age. This is the approximate length of an adult sleep cycle.
Here is a quick look at an adult sleep cycle
STAGE 1: Non-REM sleep
- The wake to sleep transition
- 30 seconds- 5 minutes in length
- Babies may jerk (this is the equivalent to the feeling of falling we sometimes feel as adults)
- STAGE 2: Non-REM 2
- The initiation of true sleep. In this stage you can hear things around you but are less likely to wake from them
- 5-25 minutes in length
STAGE 3: Non-REM
- Deep stage of sleep
- Respirations may decrease and become slower
- 30-45 minutes in length
STAGE 4: REM sleep
- Phasic eye movements: eyes may twitch or move back and forth
- Brain is working the hardest during this stage
- Some babies will cry out during this stage.
EARLY WAKE-UPS AND WHY THEY HAPPEN
An adult sleep cycle and an infant sleep cycle look a bit different, however, most people, babies and children alike enter into a more REM stage of sleep during their last third of the night. As noted previously, REM stands for “Rapid Eye Movement”. Most of our dreams happen during this stage of sleep. Most importantly for infants, it is during this stage of sleep where learning and memory consolidation happens. At this stage, babies can appear as though they are awake. They may cry out or move their arms. This stage of sleep is more wave-like. After 5 am your baby is likely in REM sleep. As mothers, we hear the noises and cries that we associate with a baby-waking when they start around 5-5:30 am. Naturally, we go to our baby assuming this is your baby waking for the day. We feed them and they are then up for the day. This can quickly become habitual for an infant and how we end up with consistent early wake-ups.
How to Curb the Early Wake-ups
During REM sleep we want to avoid waking our babies as this reduces their time in REM sleep and will make your baby more tired throughout the day. Usually, if roused, they will spend their naps in REM sleep causing short naps. Additionally, consistently waking your baby during REM sleep will cause them to wake, daily at this time. As a Mama Coach, I usually suggest, depending on your baby’s age, if your baby requires a feed during the night, to do so before 5 am. Try timing your feeds so they happen between 12 am-5 am. If you hear your baby start to rouse after 5 am, try to stay out of their room. Allow them the opportunity to wake on their own, unless frantic, as REM may sound as if they are awake. As a Mama Coach, one of my biggest passions is sleep. If you are struggling with early wake-ups, reach out to a Mama Coach in your area.