When your baby is asleep, they aren’t just resting up! Mother nature has programmed this period for intense growth and development milestones.
Now that your bundle of joy is home, you might be surprised to discover just how much time they spend sleeping. If your baby is missing mealtimes or sleeping through the din of your household and you are losing sleep over this, take a breather! Sleep has an important place in your baby’s day and can influence their development and growth. In fact, more than half of the first year of your baby’s life will be spent sleeping. Here’s why you need to make sure they get all those forty winks and then some. Sleep in the first years after birth:
1. Boosts Physical Growth
Sleep may play an important part in your baby’s physical growth. Bursts of growth hormone secretions are known to occur when you are in deep asleep during a stage of sleep known as slow-wave sleep. And research that looked at the relationship between sleep and growth in babies has even found that periods where babies slept more corresponded with spurts in length as well as weight gain.1
2. Helps With Neurosensory Development
The central nervous system develops most dramatically in the first 2 years after birth and sleep aids this growth.2
Sleep is also important for the proper development of the neurosensory system of your baby. Your baby’s neurosensory system is stimulated from within when they are asleep. This is known as endogenous stimulation and alludes to discharges from neurons that may not be associated with the external environment of the baby. These discharges are important for the normal development of the neurosensory system – which includes visual, auditory, touch, and vestibular systems – as they create connections between brain structures and sensory organs. Endogenous stimulation happens only during a stage of sleep known as REM sleep. Animal studies have even found that interfering with REM sleep can result in abnormalities in the development of these structures and systems. For instance, animal studies show that early REM sleep deprivation can lead to underdevelopment of the visual system. This is because it impairs the formation of connections between a part of your brain known as the lateral geniculate nucleus and the retinal ganglion cells. These cells normally carry light which has been converted to electrical signals by photoreceptors in your eyes to the lateral geniculate nucleus.3
3. Aids Brain Development
Infants with physical or neurodevelopmental disabilities have been found to have sleep patterns that are different from other babies who don’t have these problems. This has prompted many researchers to see a link between sleep inconsistencies and developmental problems.4
Another important aspect that sleep impacts is brain development. A vital component involved in the maturation of the brain is brain plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to respond to the environment by changing its function and structure. Animal studies have found that young animals who are deprived of sleep experience loss of brain plasticity. This is characterized by a reduction in learning, negative behavioral effects, and smaller brains.5
4. Helps Them Learn Better
Did you know that babies learn even while they’re sleeping? During a study, sleeping babies were exposed to a sequence of sounds that was played repeatedly and this recording was occasionally interspersed with a strange sound. The brainwaves of the infants indicated that they reacted with surprise to the strange sound. That is, they processed information about the environment and used it to form new neuronal pathways for learning while they were asleep.6
Sleep plays a role in memory consolidation and helps your baby learn better. One study taught 15-month-old babies an artificial language. It was found that the group that took a nap between the teaching of the language and the test that followed not only remembered word pairings that were taught but were also able to learn abstract relations between those words (such as the rules that govern grammar). They were able to recognize those rules in new word pairings as well. The babies that did not nap, on the other hand, only remembered the word pairings that were taught. So sleep may qualitatively improve your baby’s learning.7
5. Impacts Temperament
Sound, uninterrupted, and comfortable sleep for your baby equals better behavior and mood. It is also associated with being more alert and optimal physical functioning.
This one may come as no surprise. After all, we all know that babies (and adults!) who don’t get enough sleep can be a little cranky. Studies have also observed that young children who get less sleep have more “difficult” temperaments. In fact, one study even found that babies who slept less at night at 3 weeks were more irritable even when they were 3 months old.8 These babies were also found to be less approachable.
Your Baby May Need 11–17 Hours Of Sleep A Day Depending On Age
During the day, if your newborn sleeps beyond 2–3 hours, gently wake them up for a feed and then let them go back to sleep.
The amount of sleep required by babies varies according to their age as well as their individual constitution. Newborns usually need sleep the most and this reduces as they grow. A newborn may sleep around 8–9 hours in all during the day and get in another 8 hours of shut-eye at night. Here’s a guideline on how much sleep your baby should be getting:
- Babies between 0 to 3 months need 14 to 17 hours of sleep a day.
- Babies between 4 to 11 months need 12 to 16 hours of sleep a day.
- Toddlers between 12 to 35 months need 11 to 14 hours of sleep a day.
The amount of sleep mentioned here includes night-time sleep as well as naps. But do remember, though newborns sleep a lot, they may do so in shorter spurts of 1–3 hours. Once awake, they’ll go back to sleep promptly, say after 30 minutes to an hour. With each passing month, the overall sleep period will increase even as the number of hours they sleep (especially during the day) decreases.9 Babies start sleeping through the night when they are about 3 months old, with most of them doing this regularly by the time they are 6 months of age. So if you are struggling with your newborn’s fragmented spurts of sleep rather than excessive sleep, hang in there – a full night’s sleep is only a few months away.1011
When To See A Doctor
While sleep does play a critical role in a baby’s development, if your child is excessively sleepy beyond the range we’ve mentioned and is not gaining weight steadily, it could be a sign that they are unwell. For instance, medical issues such as jaundice or an infection can cause excessive sleepiness. Later on, growth stages like teething can also mean interrupted sleep during the night and excessive sleepiness during the day.12 13 So if your baby is unusually sleepy, is sleepy more than usual or lethargic, or is showing other signs like crankiness or fever, rule out any medical concerns with your pediatrician.
|↑1||Lampl, Michelle, and Michael L. Johnson. “Infant growth in length follows prolonged sleep and increased naps.” Sleep 34, no. 5 (2011): 641-650.|
|↑2||Ednick, Mathew, Aliza P. Cohen, Gary L. McPhail, Dean Beebe, Narong Simakajornboon, and Raouf S. Amin. “A review of the effects of sleep during the first year of life on cognitive, psychomotor, and temperament development.” Sleep 32, no. 11 (2009): 1449-1458.|
|↑3, ↑4, ↑8||Ednick, Mathew, Aliza P. Cohen, Gary L. McPhail, Dean Beebe, Narong Simakajornboon, and Raouf S. Amin. “A review of the effects of sleep during the first year of life on cognitive, psychomotor, and temperament development.” Sleep 32, no. 11 (2009): 1449-1458.|
|↑5||Ednick, Mathew, Aliza P. Cohen, Gary L. McPhail, Dean Beebe, Narong Simakajornboon, and Raouf S. Amin. “A review of the effects of sleep during the first year of life on cognitive, psychomotor, and temperament development.” Sleep 32, no. 11 (2009): 1449-1458.|
|↑6||What a baby hears while asleep matters more than previously thought. The University of Colorado Boulder.|
|↑7||Gómez, Rebecca L., Richard R. Bootzin, and Lynn Nadel. “Naps promote abstraction in language-learning infants.” Psychological science 17, no. 8 (2006): 670-674.|
|↑9||Carter, Kevin A., Nathanael E. Hathaway, and Christine F. Lettieri. “Common sleep disorders in children.” American family physician 89, no. 5 (2014).|
|↑10||Sleep, Health, And Sleep Development In ECEC. The State of Queensland.|
|↑11||Infant Sleep. Stanford Children’s Health.|
|↑12||Newborn Jaundice. American Pregnancy Association.|
|↑13||Infection in newborn babies. SickKids Foundation.|