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What defines infant sleep patterns?

Author: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Infant sleep patterns are not only what baby is born with and develops naturally, but from research we know that also personality, cultural differences and circumstances at home influence sleep patterns:
  • Baby's temperament: easy-going babies who are happy overall, usually in a good mood and sociable often sleep more and better than their moodier peers. 
Of course, sleeping sufficiently also has a positive effect on baby's mood, so there is a bit of chicken-and-egg here too.
  • Baby's parents: Parents with a natural calm, who live rather regularly and restfully, have a positive effect on their baby's sleep patterns.
If you are a busy person, or often nervous by nature, you can help your baby with a regular routine and trying to include restful moments where possible.
I know it is too much easier said than done, but if at all possible, try relaxing - maybe with some simple relaxation techniques. The effect on your baby's sleep patterns can be big.
  • How stimulating or busy baby's day is: Babies who have very active days, with a lot of activities, noise and people around, tend to sleep less and for shorter stretches. Of course no need to ban all activity from baby's life: activities are also good for her development and above all for fun ...
Breastfeeding Baby SleepingIdeally, baby's environment will be peaceful and restful, but with several fun activities specked throughout the day.
  • Baby's culture: Cultural differences also affect baby sleep patterns, as many studies have shown. 
Differences range from where baby sleeps (in parents room/bed or not), when she goes to sleep (early or late nights), is being carried (from all day in a baby sling to never) to how much parents tend to entertain their baby (from constantly offering stimulating toys to 'leave be').
  • Baby's food: Both breast feeding and bottle feeding have their influence on infant sleep patterns.
Breast feeding is ideally adjusted to baby's needs: it is light and easily digested. It does seem to favour night awakenings more but overall sleep would be healthier. Parents usually do not report worse sleep from breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding hormones are found to help regulate baby's sleep as they make baby drowsy and sleepy.

Formula feeding is heavier and, with a full stomach, baby may sleep a bit longer on average. Overfeeding is possible though and may make baby sleep longer than she naturally would, which can be dangerous.

Formula is not a guarantee for sleeping through though: many mums have tried switching from breastfeeding to formula hoping that would help but it usually doesn't. On the contrary, cramps from the heavier milk often make sleep more difficult.

Refer to the baby sleep patterns page for further practical tips on how to steer your child's natural infant sleep patterns.