How can my baby learn to connect sleep cycles?
A sleep cycle is when the brain cycles from wake through the stages of sleep including non-REM and REM sleep. In little ones sleep cycles are shorter than in adults, ranging from about 45 to 60 minutes for newborns, to around 90 minutes by school-age.
Young children (and adults too!) naturally wake up at the end of each cycle. What happens after that awakening can vary. The best scenario is that a little one will return immediately to sleep on their own. Other times, they will be tired but also perhaps hungry, making it difficult to return to sleep until after a feeding. This is especially common in young infants (birth to around 6-months). Or, an infant with a negative sleep association may signal for help to return to sleep. An infant who falls asleep being rocked or fed (common sleep associations), may wake and signal (cry) for an adult to provide that same association so they can return to sleep. That is, a baby who is rocked or nursed to sleep may need to be rocked or nursed back to sleep at the end of a sleep cycle when they naturally awaken. Finally, an infant may wake, be well-rested, and feel ready to be awake (even if mom or dad are not!).
There are some strategies parents can use to support their little one in returning to sleep quickly and independently after an awakening between sleep cycles. Addressing sleep associations by using one of many sleep training methods, for instance, is a great way to increase the likelihood that your little one will be able to put themselves back to sleep independently. This can result in more sleep consolidated sleep, thus “connecting” sleep cycles, as well as more sleep overall! If an infant is young (around 6 months or younger, but this varies by infant), a quick feeding might help them return to sleep. Know that newborns (0-2 months) will likely need some help to return to sleep, and that is completely normal.
Keep in mind that how much sleep babies need varies a lot in the first several years, and your little one just might not need that 3-hour afternoon nap that your neighbor’s baby regularly takes. Finally, having your baby sleep as often as possible in a consistent, quiet environment (for example, in a crib in a dark room with white noise) can decrease the chance that something interesting in their environment will make them more alert during a natural waking between sleep cycles.