Active and quiet sleep: how sleep aids can help with sleep

By Oricom

Sleep, elusive sleep; a concept all-too familiar to new mums and dads. It’s not just the parents that are struggling, newborns struggle with sleep too; their in-built survival instinct means they have a high arousal state and they wake easily and are often hard to settle. The good news is that as they grow their sleep/wake patterns will change.

By the first month, a full term baby will sleep approximately 14 hours per day with an average sleep cycle length of 50-80 minutes. 60% of that time is spent in ‘active sleep’ and the balance in ‘quiet sleep’. In active sleep, infants are more likely to rouse in response to internal stimuli like hunger, and external stimuli like sounds or touch, than they are in quiet sleep.

Active sleep is associated with processing and storing of information and has been linked to learning. It accounts for the highest proportion of newborn sleep and usually precedes wakening. Active sleep is a light sleep state characterized by fluttering eyelids; rapid, irregular breathing; occasional body movements; and vocalizations (grunts or brief cries).

Quiet sleep is characterized by slower, more rhythmic breathing, little movement and no eyelid fluttering. The threshold to sensory stimuli is very high during quiet sleep; only stimuli that are very intense and disturbing can arouse infants.

Although the total amount of sleep per 24 hours does not alter significantly over the first twelve months, there is a change in the duration of sleep periods and, generally speaking, a consolidation of sleep into night-time hours, with increased awake time during the day. The other hopeful news is that the percentage of active sleep decreases, and the percentage of quiet sleep increases.

There are things you can do to help your baby to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Whilst there are no guarantees, here are three tips that might just help:

1. Mechanical sleep aids

Sleep aids like night lights, ceiling projections and white noise or sleep sounds aid the transition to sleep.

White noise has been proven as an aid to sleep in infants. In an experimental study of newborns, 80% of infants assigned to hear playbacks of white noise fell asleep spontaneously within 5 minutes. Only 25% of control infants fell asleep spontaneously .

Why white noise works:

  • It calms and soothes baby - white noise simulates conditions in the womb, where noise is a constant presence. It helps block out stimulating background noise present in and around the home such as older siblings, doorbells and traffic
  • It increases the time spent asleep - about every 20-45 minutes babies will tend to come into a lighter sleep, white noise helps babies gently navigate these arousals to get longer naps
  • It helps baby fall asleep more easily - when used as part of your babies sleep routine, it creates a positive sleep association.

Keep an eye out for a machine that produces several different kinds of white noise as well as natural “soft sounds" including the sounds of ocean waves breaking on the beach (which is suggestive of slow breathing). Other good sounds include that of a waterfall, a stream, and the rain.

There are a number of sleep aids of this type available, but rather than filling the nursery or shower wish-list with numerous gadgets, look out for multi-function products like Baby Monitors that offer white noise and light projection as part of their design.

Some products have timers on them, so you can set the sounds to turn off after a fixed period. But I think it makes more sense to leave the sound on throughout the night. If the baby begins to associate the white noise with falling asleep, he may be more likely to soothe himself back to sleep at night. 

2. Create a sleep routine

Many sleep experts recommend the development of a regular bedtime routine for infants. The theory behind this is that is encourages a calm and pleasant association.

A bedtime routine might include calm and relaxing activities like bathing, massage, a bedtime story or lullaby.

3. Work on the body-clock

Newborns can’t tell the difference between night and day and most babies don’t develop strong, hormonally-driven circadian rhythms until they are 12 weeks old (and some babies may take considerably longer.)

You can help sync the circadian rhythms of the body-clock by following the natural cycle of day and night. Try exposure to cues like sunlight during the morning and afternoon, and avoid bright lights before and during bedtime. Also re-enforce quiet and calm time rather than over-stimulation before bedtime.

In addition to the physiological states experienced by infants there is the behavioural aspect to consider: nine months spent in-utero has seen your baby exposed to constant noise as well as light and movement and, for most babies, the transition to dark, quiet nurseries can be quite difficult.

Gwen Dewar PH.D “Infant sleep problems:  A parent's evidence-based guide” 
Gwen Dewar PH.D “Newborn sleep patterns: A survival guide for the science-minded parent” 
Gwen Dewar PH.D “Finding the right infant sleep aid: A parent's evidence-based guide”

Karen Faulkner “How much white noise is safe for baby’s hearing?” May 29, 2016

Kathryn Hatter “Can Babies Sleep Deeply with White Noise?”

Understanding the Behavior of Term Infants. Perinatal Nursing Education. 2003 March of Dimes


Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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