The Sleep Cycle
Breastfeeding is a “gut feeling” thing…It’s something you know by instinct and not something you can calculate, or think through. Some say, you need to use your right brain that regulates emotions and not your left one, the one that analyses. Breastfeeding is something you feel, it is not a logical thing. You cannot control when your baby will wake up, how hungry he will be and how long he will breastfeed. In fact, once you have a baby, there is no way you can ever control anything again… No, this is only a joke…Well there is a little truth to it.
In the beginning, babies’ respond to stimuli with reflexes. They cannot control their movements and their bodily functions. They react to things with their primitive brain, the first brain fully developed at the birth of a human being. The other parts of our brain, the emotional and the logical ones, develop progressively as the child grows.
One thing present at birth is the sleep cycle. Babies stay awake and sleep in answer to their own cycle. For example, a baby can only be awake very short periods at a time when they are a few days old. They do not have the neurological maturity to stay up for long periods. It is also mainly brain immaturity that makes some babies cry more than others. It is for the same reason that babies’ arms and legs can shake a little sometimes. Babies are not a “finished” product when they are born. They will be developing their brain functions as they grow.
The sleep cycle regulates a baby’s feeding schedule. Babies are diurnal mammals. This means that they live during the day and sleep at night. Cats and bats are nocturnal; they live at night and sleep in the day. You probably think this is wrong as babies keep us pretty active during the night, right? This is because of their immature sleep cycle. They will need a little time and help to get their nighttime sleep on track. The way we sleep is also linked to social and cultural issues.
Here is an example of the sleep cycle of a baby up to 1 month old:
Babies can stay awake for only a few minutes and their deep sleep also lasts for a short period. The longest sleep period is in the light sleep. Light sleep is when you dream. If you look closely, you will see their eyes moving behind their eyelids. They also make small movements and sounds. Their breathing is very irregular in light sleep mode. During this phase of the sleep cycle, they wake up easily if a loud noise occurs or if there is some type of disturbance or change in their environment (like taking them from your warm arms to put them in a bed many degrees colder). In deep sleep, you can put them down and they will not wake up but the deep sleep does not last very long, at the most 15 minutes in 1 cycle. A full sleep cycle with the awake period is about 1 hour to 1 hour and a half in a very young baby.
The natural feeding behavior for babies is ‘grouped feedings’ with one period of longer sleep per 24 hours. Grouped feedings mean that a baby will feed between 5 to 10 times in a 1 to 2 hours period and then fall asleep for up to 5-6 hours. If left to follow their natural sleep pattern, there will always be a longer period of sleep. We all wish babies would do this longer stretch during the night but it does not always happen that way. Let me explain why.
The wheel above shows babies fall asleep during a transitional phase (sleepiness) and then go through periods of light sleep, deep sleep and light sleep again. When they reach the reverse transition phase, the “awakening”, this is when they transition to being completely up. This is a good time to help them awaken gently by positioning them at the breast. If a baby is not gaining much weight or if he has breastfeeding difficulties or specific health concerns such as jaundice (yellow tinted skin in the early days), it is important to observe for the awakening phase, to pick up the baby and get him ready to breastfeed. At night time and if the babies health is fine and he is growing well, you can wait and see if he wakes completely before putting him at the breast. If he has no specific needs, he might awaken slightly and fall back in a light sleep mode. This is how babies sleep longer stretches. It is not because they are good or quiet babies. It is not because they get formula or cereals to ‘help’ them sleep. The waking up and sleepiness is determined by the maturity of their brain and it changes as they grow.
True or false
“We need to wake our babies up according to specific and fixed intervals like “every 2 to 3 hours”.
False. Babies need to be fed “on demand”. If your baby is left to go through his sleep cycle without being woken up at specific intervals, he will eventually do his long stretch of sleep. If you wake him up every X hours with no respect of his natural sleep cycle, he might be in a deep sleep when you wake him up and he will not breastfeed well. Once put back down, he will still wake up according to his schedule but you will think he is crying for nothing as he just fed awhile ago.
“Mothers of breastfed babies sleep less then mothers of bottle-fed babies.”
False. What makes people say this is the fact that you can have someone else give a bottle to your baby but you cannot have someone else breastfeed your baby. In fact, when you breastfeed and follow your baby’s sleep cycle, you will be able to sleep well as a baby has a longer stretch of sleep in his sleep cycle. What is difficult on a mother’s sleep is to wake up the baby at every 2 or 3 hours interval.
“Babies are less likely to fall asleep on their own if they are breastfed.”
False. By helping a baby follow his own sleep cycle you teach him how to fall asleep and wake up naturally. Most breastfed babies fall asleep at the breast. This is much easier on the mother and on the baby.
Dany G. 🙂