From Newborn Sleep Patterns towards Healthy Sleep Habits

Author Name: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

A newborn's sleeping skills are governed by her newborn sleep patterns . Their optimal development towards bigger is crucial for good health now and later on.

Developing rapidly, especially in the first six months, newborn and baby sleep patterns explain why baby's naps and nights can be so unpredictable, in those first months, and even past one year old.

Understanding this development helps us guide our child in the best possible way: by accepting what is inherent to her maturity and by steering towards good habits that fit our daily lives. An overview ...

The first six months are key in sleep development: at no other stage in life do sleep patterns develop this rapidly. After six months, the sleep patterns continue to develop. Around the age of four close-to-adult sleep patterns are reached. How much is enough continues to depend on age, but also on personality and environment.

Developing newborn sleep patterns

The main characteristic of a newborn's sleep pattern is the lack of a circadian rhythm .

So indeed, our baby has no choice when giving us a hard time with broken nights, for her there is just no difference between day and night ... A clear daily routine and light/dark cues can help instill this day-night rhythm towards a newborn baby sleep schedule .

Different things influence the natural infant sleep patterns . This results, as usual, in (large) differences between babies : some seem to get our rhythm in a snap and others may take many months to adjust.

Circadian Rhythms

Before birth, in the womb, your baby was not on any sleep-wake schedule like us. She did follow active-quiet cues from mommy's belly, constantly alternating sleep-like and awake states.

However, there was no day-night difference, no longer naps, no sleeping through ... in one go: baby is not born with a circadian rhythm .

Circadian rhythms govern our body's daily cycle of mainly wakefulness during the day and sleep during the night - with also low points during the day and high points at night. Daily routines and (natural) light are key cues that establish and reinforce this rhythm.

After birth , newborn sleep patterns are naturally linked to food : a newborn and growing baby needs food regularly: ideally in not too big portions but frequently. Her natural infant sleep patterns reinforce these food needs:

Baby will wake up because she needs food , just long enough for feeding, a burp and a diaper filling, some socializing and then back to sleep again. Sleeping: to develop brain and body, and to be ready for another feeding, burping, ...

A small baby spends a lot of time in so called light sleep , about half of the time. The other half is quiet sleep which is deeper. This results in rather easy arousal , especially shortly (first 30 minutes) after going to sleep.

She also makes short sleep cycles : 50-minute slots of light and quiet sleep, after which she wakes up (either completely or else goes straight on to next cycle). This explains the frequent (night) awakenings.
(We adults do the same, but in 90-minute cycles.)

As the first weeks go by, little by little, there will be a bit more awake time: baby becomes more aware of her surroundings, the socializing with mom/dad/carer becomes more important.

1 - 6 months baby sleep patterns

Then during the following months , practicing motor skills requires her to be awake more. And that's how the awake stretches become longer. As baby becomes ready to be without food for longer, she can also sleep for longer stretches .

Around 3 to 4 months old, the circadian rhythm has usually set in . Sleep at night will be different and - in spite of night awakenings - longer than during the day.

Unfortunately, these abilities are no guarantee for perfect nights ... At this age, there are other factors besides food and deep sleep: there's awareness of needing mom/dad, separation anxiety , teething , etc.

6 months and onwards

At about 6 months old, baby starts to reach a deeper sleep more often. Then little by little, towards the age of 4, her sleep cycles become longer, going from 50 to 90 minutes. Sleep is starting to resemble adult sleep more and more, most of the work is done ...

As is clear from the above overview, newborn sleep patterns need time to develop. They do so quite rapidly and with a gentle guiding hand, grow towards lifelong healthy sleep habits . See the baby sleep patterns page for practical tips.

For the right tools and techniques to teach your new baby the right sleeping skills you may find my free Complete Newborn Sleep Guide helpful.

Article Author: Heidi Holvoet, PhD - Founder, senior sleep consultant

Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Heidi Holvoet, PhD, is the founder of the Baby Sleep Advice website and movement, an award-winning author, baby & toddler sleep consultant with 15+ years experience as well as a certified lactation counselor.

Over the years, Heidi has received several awards inluding a Mom's Choice Award (MCA) and National Parenting Awards (NAPPA) for her Baby Sleep Advice website, programs and books. Also, Baby Sleep Advice was awarded "Most Trusted Infant's Sleep Solutions Company 2023" in the Benelux Enterprise Awards 2023.

Heidi continually conducts personal research and participates in continued education and in that way stays up to date with current scientific and pyschosocial infant care.

Association of Professional Sleep Consultants

She is also a member of the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants of which she was one of the earliest contributors. She obtained her PhD degree in physics at the University of Ghent in Belgium.

Heidi is passionate about helping babies and their parents sleep more and better, with her trademark approach that has been proven and praised time and again by parents worldwide to be effective and truly no-tears. Respect for you as a parent and your baby, is at the heart of Heidi's warm and kind support. Her approach always keeps in mind a baby's needs and abilities at any given age, is based on pediatric science and the most up to date knowledge in infant care and sleep science.

As well as the award-winning baby sleep programs, Heidi offers popular 1:1 consults and easy-access 30-minute SOS Sleep sessions.