Babies and Polyphasic Sleeping Patterns
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New parent or not, you may have heard of polyphasic sleeping, the practice of resting for a few hours at a time each day. Many adults try it (and struggle), but babies and polyphasic sleep actually go hand in hand. However, if you’re one of the many adults who aren’t looking to throw their current sleep schedule out the window, then working around your baby’s can be its own struggle.
Our advice? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Babies vs. Adults: How Do They Sleep?
Babies and Circadian Rhythm
It doesn’t take an experienced parent to know that babies and adults have drastically different sleeping schedules, with babies seeming to follow no kind of schedule at all. This is, in fact, true—specifically, babies don’t follow a circadian rhythm.
Essentially, your circadian rhythm is a daily cycle that your body follows to determine daytime from nighttime, and sleepiness from alertness. This rhythm influences your heart, brain, blood pressure, and body temperature. However, especially in the case of babies and other polysleepers, the time of day itself doesn’t necessarily determine the body’s “daytime” and “nighttime”.
As totally chaotic polysleepers, babies don’t even follow their own kind of rhythm. Typically, an adult will naturally get drowsy at the same time each night and wake up around the same time each morning, with or without an alarm. However, a baby will keep sleeping until something wakes them up, whether that’s a loud noise or hunger.
Sleep Totals and Stages
It’s not just sleep schedules that differ between new parents and their babies, but also how they sleep and for how long.
While an average adult between the ages of 18 and 64 shoots for eight hours of sleep per night, newborn babies can average about 16 hours of sleep every single day. However, as many parents already know, their babies’ 16 hours of sleep don’t always coincide with their nightly eight-hour sleep. And, for how babies and adults sleep differently, we need to look at how much time they spend in deeper and lighter sleep.
Right away, it’s no secret that babies aren’t the heaviest sleepers. And, the actual reason for why babies sleep so much lighter than adults has to do with brain development and activity, specifically REM sleep. Because babies have more activity and growth in their brains than already developed adults, they experience nearly four times more REM for every hour they sleep. As a result, a baby’s active brain keeps their body more restless and alert. For parents, unfortunately, this also means more interrupted naps and crying at night.
How You Can Sleep Like a Baby (Literally)
So, if your newborn has a hard time staying asleep and has no sleep schedule, it can be a struggle to get your eight hours of sleep in—and an impossibility to get them all in one restful night of sleep. However, this is where polyphasic sleep, or the power of napping, comes into play. New parents who avoid naps and try to cram all of their sleep at once often end up sleep deprived and physically exhausted. Instead, you have a much better shot of getting eight hours of sleep if you take brief naps when you can get them.
That means making sleep your top priority, above chores, social obligations, and even work if possible. If you have a chance to nap, prepare a quiet environment for you and your baby, and take a 20–90 minute rest. That means no appliances running, your phone on silent, dimmed lights, and even reaching out to a loved one or friend to watch your baby if you need some nap time alone. And, when it is your typical bedtime, avoiding stimulants, alcohol, and bright screens can help you maximize what night time you do have.
National Sleep Foundation (2020). How Many Hours of Sleep Do You Really Need? https://www.thensf.org/how-many-hours-of-sleep-do-you-really-need/
Nationwide Children’s (2010). From Wide-Awake to Fast-Asleep: Baby’s Sleeping Patterns https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/family-resources-library/from-wide-awake-to-fast-asleep-babys-sleep-patterns
Yates, J. (2018). The Long-Term Effects of Light Exposure on Establishment of Newborn Circadian Rhythm https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6175794
Pregnancy & Sleep
Learn about the most common sleep challenges during pregnancy and how to combat these issues.