Your baby's sleep cycles explained, and why cat-naps aren't good enough

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Those catnaps just aren't going to cut it. Newborns need several sleep cycles in order to properly development.
Those catnaps just aren't going to cut it. Newborns need several sleep cycles in order to properly development.

If your child’s naps are shorter than an hour and a half in length, you may have wondered if these brief naps provide enough rest for your little one. You might suspect that these catnaps aren’t meeting your baby's sleep needs – and you would be right. The science of sleep explains why a short nap takes the edge off, but doesn’t offer the same physical and mental nourishment that a longer nap provides.

It takes between 90 and 120 minutes for your baby to move through one entire sleep cycle, resulting in a Perfect Nap. It has been discovered that each stage of sleep brings a different benefit to the sleeper. Imagine, if you will, the magic gifts that are awarded at each new stage of sleep:

The sleep cycle

Stage 1 - Very light sleep

  • Lasts 5 to 15 minutes
  • Prepares body for sleep
  • Reduces feelings of sleepiness

Stage 2 - Light to moderate sleep

  • Lasts up 15 minutes
  • Increases alertness
  • Improves motor skills
  • Stabilises mood
  • Slightly reduces homeostatic sleep pressure (the biological process that creates fatigue and irritability.)

Stage 3 - Deep sleep

  • Lasts up to 15 minutes
  • Strengthens memory
  • Release of growth hormone
  • Repair of bones, tissues and muscles
  • Fortification of immune system
  • Regulates appetite
  • Releases bottled up stress
  • Restores energy
  • Reduces homeostatic sleep pressure

Stage 4 – Deepest sleep

  • Lasts up to 15 minutes
  • Same benefits as Stage 3, but enhanced

Next Stage – Dreaming

  • Lasts up to 9 to 30 minutes
  • Transfers short-term memory into long-term memory
  • Organises thoughts
  • Secures new learning
  • Enhances brain connections
  • Sharpens visual and perceptual skills
  • Processes emotions
  • Relieves stress
  • Inspires creativity
  • Boosts energy
  • Reduces homeostatic sleep pressure

Longer naps

  • For as long as your child sleeps
  • Repeat all of the above stages in cycles

Also read: Sleep and your newborn

In order for your child to receive all of these wonderful gifts he must sleep long enough to pass at least once through each stage of sleep. Longer naps will encompass additional sleep cycles and provide a continuous presentation of gifts.

A newborn's sleep cycles

Newborn babies have unique cycles that slowly mature over time. A newborn sleep cycle is about 40 to 60 minutes long, and an infant enters dream sleep quickly, skipping several sleep stages. Infants need several sleep cycles to receive their full allotment of "gifts". If your infant is sleeping only 40-60 minutes at naptime it is an indication that your baby is waking between cycles instead of returning to sleep on his own.

Now you can clearly see why a short nap doesn’t provide your baby or young child the best benefits of napping. You can also see why a mini-nap can fool you into thinking it is enough – since the very first 5 to 15 fifteen minutes reduce feelings of sleepiness and bring that whoosh of second-wind energy that dissipates quickly, resulting is fussiness, crying, crankiness, tantrums and whining.

This is a copyrighted excerpt from The No-Cry Nap Solution: Guaranteed Gentle Ways to Solve All Your Naptime Problems by Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, December 2008).

How long are your little one's naps? Do you feel they're getting enough sleep after reading this breakdown? Tell us by commenting below or emailing chatback@parent24.com.

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