Do Babies’ Sleeping Patterns Differ From Adults?

7 Min Read | By Shannan Humphrey

Last Modified 31 August 2023   First Added 6 July 2021

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

Parenthood isn’t easy. Especially when coping with the random sleeping patterns of newborns and having to deal with sleep deprivation. For adults, our sleep cycles are typically consistent and aren’t too difficult to plan or understand. But when we bring babies into the mix, we have to follow and adapt to their sleeping patterns. This can mean jumping in and out of bed at all times of the night and trying to catch up on sleep wherever possible.

In this article, we discuss babies’ sleeping patterns, both in the womb and when they’re born, before exploring how much sleep your baby needs. By learning more about their sleep, you can better understand your baby’s needs, and hopefully, get a better night’s sleep for yourself too.

Do babies sleep in the womb?

Yes, while in the womb babies spend most of their time asleep. Especially during the last trimester where babies are asleep about 95% of the time. Because of the lack of technology, not much is known about babies sleep during early development. Most of the studies we’ll go on to discuss rely on REM sleep, which is typically first observed around the 7 months into pregnancy.

Before we dig into the sleep cycles of our little ones, we need to learn a little about the different stages of sleep. There are four of these: two lighter periods and two deeper, more healing sleep states. One of the lighter phases is referred to as REM sleep, the stage where you’re more likely to dream. As mentioned, most of the research on how babies sleep is undertaken when they’re in this phase of their sleep cycle.

Related: What Do Babies Dream About?

What does the research say? 

There have been a variety of methods used by researchers to study fetal sleep patterns. By tracking fetal heart rate in a 2010 study, researchers found results of regular sleep and waking patterns. During a 2008 study,  ECG heart recordings were used to measure and compare the sleep cycles of the same baby before and after birth.

Each of the four sleeping stages was identified and the researchers found that there were some similarities between sleeping in and out of the womb. However, they also discovered that newborns who had spent more time sleeping in the womb often slept less as a newborn. That isn’t always the case, however.

Although not much research is done on earlier human fetal development, sleep patterns in fetal sheep were looked at in a 2009 study. Researchers found that the sheep’s brain activity showed patterns that suggested early sleep cycles. This could be used to show that babies in early development may be sleeping.

How much sleep do babies need?

Babies usually spend most of their day sleeping, however, the amount of time they spend asleep depends on their age. Here’s what National Sleep Foundation research identifies as the right levels of sleep for babies:

Newborn to 3 months:

From newborn to 3 months old, a baby should be getting a total of 14 to 17 hours of sleep a day. Throughout the day your baby will take short naps, totalling somewhere between 2-4 hours. At night they’re likely to sleep about 12 hours on and off.

4 to 6 months:

During the 4 to 6-month age, your baby will sleep about 12-16 hours a day, and their naps will merge to about 3-5 a day. Finally, your baby’s sleep patterns will slowly start to join yours and will start sleeping less during the day.

7 to 11 months:

The total amount of sleep roughly stays the same, but overnight sleep grows to about 10-12 hours at a time and naps will shorten to about 2 a day.

How much sleep do premature babies need?

Premature babies need more time for their brain to develop, this is why they need more sleep than full-term babies. The exact amount of sleep that a premature baby needs can vary, it depends on their overall health and how far along they were. However, premature babies usually sleep around 22 hours a day.

Although they tend to spend most of their time snoozing, premature babies will eventually have the same sleep patterns as full-term babies, it will just take about a year to reach that point.

Why do babies sleep so much?

Sleeping is an important period of growth and brain development. This is why babies spend the majority of their days asleep. While asleep, your little one’s brain is processing the information they’ve taken in throughout the day, such as their surroundings and new motor skills and behaviours they’ve started to discover. Sleeping also allows your baby to grow bigger and stronger.

Is it normal for babies to take naps?

Absolutely. Naps are completely normal for babies and help contribute to their total sleeping time. As stated above, newborns often nap the most and the time spent napping slowly decreases as your baby ages.

Your baby’s naps are also beneficial. As stated before, sleep helps the brain to develop and this is just as true within a nap as within regular sleep. Taking frequent naps allows your baby to merge and network memories and promotes learning.

Can babies sleep too much?

Although babies sleep a lot, it’s possible for them to sleep a little too much. Sleeping too much isn’t recommended for your baby as they need to be woken every now and then to be fed and given the right nutrients to continue developing.

Sleep is handy for brain development, but it can’t do all the work for you. Remember, your newborn baby should feed at least 8-12 times a day, so letting your baby sleep longer may mean you get some peace and quiet, but it also means they might miss out on the nutrition they need.

If you’re at all concerned about your baby’s sleeping habits, speak to your health visitor or GP for more information.

What can you do if your baby doesn’t sleep enough?

If you’re worried about the amount of sleep your baby is getting, a sleep journal can be helpful in tracking sleep cycles to see if your baby has a normal sleeping pattern. If you think your baby might be having sleep problems, the best advice is to see your paediatrician.

However, we have some tips that may encourage your baby to sleep a little longer. These include slowly waking them up, and soothing them before bedtime with low lights and fewer stimuli which may help to encourage more sleepiness.  As well as this, reading them bedtime stories and changing the temperature of your baby’s room may help to calm them down and let them drift off into a slumber.

When do babies start to sleep through the night?

Having a baby can definitely be an eye-opening experience, especially if you are used to sleeping for about 8 hours without any interruptions. Babies tend to sleep their days away but rarely sleep through the night without waking.

Although reaching this milestone of sleeping through the night can vary, babies tend to start slowly sleeping more at night at around 6 months.

But, don’t worry if your baby is taking longer to achieve this, over time your baby will get there. Sleeping through the night won’t impact your baby’s development. What’s more important is the total daily sleep time.

So, even though you might be a little tired from staying up, you can rest easy knowing your baby is still growing well.

Finally, remember that during the first year of life, safe sleep is very important for your baby. You should always place your baby on a firm surface free from toys and on their back for sleeping. As your baby grows they’ll start to roll around in their sleep but there’s no need to return them to their back. We’d recommend checking out the NHS guide to helping your baby to sleep for any further information as well as speaking to your GP if you have any concerns.

To learn more about babies’ sleep, check out our article on Why Do Babies Pull Weird Faces in their Sleep?

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