Sleep deprivation – top tips for parents!
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Mandy Gurney
Former Director of the Sleep Clinic at the NHS St Charles hospital in London and Director of Millpond Sleep clinic. She also works as an NHS Sleep educator to health professionals across the UK.
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Baby Sleeping

How do babies sleep?

Babies are born with a free flowing body clock and over time move to more adult patterns of deep sleep, mid level sleep and REM or dream sleep.
Video Tutorial
In Short
Babies are born with a pretty free flowing body clock and sleep many more hours than we do.

Gradually they move into a pattern more similar to ours - including deep, mid-level and REM sleep.

Deep Sleep is our restorative sleep and happens in the first two hours of sleep.

We spend the majority of our night in a mid-level sleep. 

REM sleep mainly occurs at the last stage of sleep in the early morning and newborns spend half of the time in REM. 

Types of sleep and sleep stages in babies

Babies do not have the same sleeping patterns as adults and are born with a pretty free flowing body clock and sleep many more hours than we do. Sleep researchers have also discovered that babies in the womb and newborn babies spend at least 50% of their sleep in dream sleep, also called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Our brains require different types of sleep during the night and scientists monitor what happens as the brain sleeps.

Sleep researchers have identified different stages of sleep that we and our babies need to restore, grow, rest and learn.

Deep Sleep is our restorative sleep.

When we go to sleep we spend roughly the first two hours in deep sleep.

Deep sleep is restorative sleep and is a ‘slow wave’ sleep and our brains are resting at this time, i.e. not actively processing.

However, some people are still able to get up and walk around during deep sleep – this is sleepwalking, and this is when children may be having things like night terrors or sleep walking, can happen at that point of the night.

Night terrors are not bad dreams as dreaming only happens during REM sleep. Night terrors are due to physiological changes during sleep such as slowing heart rate, reducing blood pressure and decreasing body temperature.

Mid Level sleep.

We then spend the majority of our night, in a mid level sleep, but then every now the brain moves into REM sleep cycle.

Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM) or Dream Sleep.

REM stands for rapid eye movement sleep because our eyes flit constantly during this sleep phase. It is also referred to as dream sleep.

REM mainly occurs at the last stage of sleep in the early morning, we are unlikely to have REM in the first third of our sleeping night.

During REM, we consolidate what we have experienced and learned in the day. We process experiences and we store them into our memory.

REM is vitally important to babies and children as they are learning so many new things each day. Indeed, newborns spend half of the time in REM and this helps your baby’s memory, learning, and understanding.


REM sleep is also the time when your child might have a nightmare. Nightmares are more likely to happen during morning sleep and night terrors in deep sleep so look to what time your child wakes up frightened to work out what is causing the fear.

During REM sleep, we are in a semi-paralysed state so that we don’t act out our dreams (that may be why people say dogs are chasing rabbits when their legs twitch and they do muted barks in their sleep!).

Another reason that it’s very important that we are in the semi-paralysed state during REM is that during this time your baby’s body is resting and restoring. Your baby will grow during REM and tissues in the body will be repaired too.

Differences between deep sleep and REM.

Deep sleep is similar to when a computer is shut down. To reboot or wake up in this stage takes time and you will feel very confused, tired and not alert. In contrast, REM is similar to a computer that has gone over to screensaver or ‘sleep’ mode. Just by touching the keyboard the computer is fully functioning. People are much easier to wake up from REM – which is why it’s often easier to wake someone up in the early hours of the morning compared to the dead of night when they will be in deep sleep phases.

How do babies fall asleep?

The change from being awake to being asleep as fairly abrupt. Although it feels like you drift into sleep, the change is actually sudden. This is more obvious in babies who are endlessly appearing on “You’ve Been Framed”, suddenly falling asleep on everything from rocking horses to high chairs.

For the first 2 hours after babies go to sleep, they are in deep sleep. You’ll notice through this time they don’t seem to stir. You can hoover around their room and they will stay asleep. It’s good to know this – so you have a window to get things done – or watch some TV!

References and Further Reading


Teach Your Child To Sleep, Millpond / Hamlyn, Revised 2016.

Sleep Faring, Jim Horne / Oxford, 2006.


Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep, Judy Owens and Jodi Mindell / Marlowe and Co, 2005.

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Children, Dr Marc Weissbluth / Vermilion, 2010.

Sleeping Better, A Guide to Improving Sleep for Children with Special Needs V Mark Durand / Brookes Revised Edition 2014.

Outcomes at six years of age for children with infant sleep problems:

Longitudinal community-based study Anna M.H. Price, Melissa Wake, Harriet Hiscock et al, Sleep Medicine 13 (2012) 991–998

Short Nighttime Sleep Duration and Hyperactivity Trajectories in Early Childhood,Tourchette et al. Pediatrics. 2009.

Sleep and Depression in Postpartum Women: A Population-Based Study; Dorheim SK et al, Sleep 2009; 32(7): 847-855.

Fragmented maternal sleep is more strongly correlated with depressive symptoms than infant temperament at three months postpartum. Goyal D, Gay C, Lee K, authors Arch Women’s Ment Health. 2009;12:229–37.

Sleep problems in young infants and maternal mental and physical health, Jordana K Bayer, Harriet Hiscock, Anne Hampton and Melissa Wake, Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol 43, issue 1-2, January/February 2007.

Longitudinal analysis of sleep in relation to BMI and body fat in children: the FLAME study. BMJ 2011

Short sleep duration is associated with increased markers in European adolescents

International journal of Obesity (2011) 35, 1308-1317 M Garaulet et al.

Sleep and the epidemic of obesity in children and adults; E Van Cauter & K Knutson, 2008.

The use of MElatonin in children with Neurodevelopmental Disorders and impaired Sleep: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel study (MENDS),Re Appleton, AP Jones, C Gamble, PR Williamson, L Wiggs, P Montgomery, A Sutcliffe, C Barker and P Gringras. Health Technology Assessment 2012; Vol. 16: No. 40 DOI: 10.3310/hta16400

Kids’ behavior impacted by lack of sleep, Jase Donaldson, Insight Journal, Feb 13 2006.

What affects the age of first sleeping through the night? S M Adams, D R Jones, A Esmail and E A Mitchell, Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol 40, issue 3, March 2004.

Behavioral Treatment of Bedtime Problems and Night Wakings in Infants and Young Children; An American Academy of Sleep Medicine Review, Jodi A. Mindell, et al SLEEP, Vol. 29, No. 10, 2006

References are reviewed on a regular basis and are updated when applicable.

Sleep Training NHS staff since 2007
If you or your colleagues want to know more about children’s sleep and how you can help the families you are working with, Millpond Sleep Clinic run one-day Sleep Workshops aimed at health care professionals.
These highly engaging sessions are based on proven research and years of experience and are suitable for all staff working directly with the families of babies through to school aged children.
The workshop is fully certified and approved by The CPD Certification Service.
If you would like to find out more about the sleep workshops please contact Millpond direct on:
Tel: 020 8444 0040

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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.