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Restless Sleep in Newborns: Why Tossing and Turning Is Normal

Have you noticed your infant uncomfortably tossing and turning through the night? There’s a sound biological reason for this behavior. Read on to find out why restless sleep in newborns is common and what steps to take.

A baby tossing and turning during sleep

Why is your newborn tossing and turning?

For most new parents, their little one’s restless sleep keeps them up at night. But why is it that babies are always tossing and turning? Of the 14 to 17 hours of sleep they get per day, approximately half is devoted to the REM phase. REM sleep proportionately decreases as we grow older.

Next, let’s take a closer look at the two major types of sleep:

  • REM (rapid eye movement) sleep: this is a light sleep marked by increased movement, vivid dreams, and rapid eye flickering. This is when your baby’s brain has the opportunity to consolidate memories and enhance cognitive skills.
  • Non-REM (NREM) sleep: this particular phase can be broken down into four stages, with the following characteristics:
  1. Stage 1  — drowsiness and dozing, drooping eyes that open and close
  2. Stage 2  — a lighter form of sleep during which they could be easily awakened or startled
  3. Stage 3 — a deep sleep where your baby stays quiet and does not move

Similar to adults, babies experience each of these stages in a sleep cycle, progressing from stages 1 through 3. This process repeats itself multiple times throughout the night.

The average adult sleep cycle lasts between 90 and 120 minutes (with 20 to 25 percent of it in REM). In contrast, your infant’s sleep cycle lasts only 50 minutes (with 50 percent of it in REM) until they’re 9 months old. These shorter cycles and frequent REM phases are what causes restlessness in your baby. 

Should you pick up your baby when they’re restless?

As tempting as it may be, it’s probably unwise to pick up your little one every time they make a sound. Newborns naturally cycle through light and deep sleep all night long.

Whenever they enter the REM phase, they instinctively toss and turn or even whimper. This is completely normal and if you leave them alone, they’ll slowly transition back into a deep sleep. Rushing to pick them up when you observe restlessness, however, disrupts their sleep cycle.

When will babies start to have a sounder sleep?

Counting the days till your infant (and you) can enjoy longer, more restful sleep? Typically, they sleep 8 to 9 hours during the day, then another 8 hours at night. But each period of sleep is no longer than 3 hours, as they cannot store much energy and need to eat frequently.

At the 3- to 4-month mark, your baby should begin sleeping for 5 to 6 hours at a time. Most children experience deeper sleep (8 to 10 hours, uninterrupted) as they approach their first birthday. Just remember that this varies from one individual to the next.

Tips for helping your baby sleep more soundly

A woman helping her baby sleep better

Although your newborn’s sleep cycle doesn’t offer much leeway, there are other strategies for tackling restless sleep. Here are a few tips for developing healthier sleep habits.

Create a bedtime routine

Establish a set routine for putting your baby to sleep. This could include a warm bath, breastfeeding, or changing into their pajamas. The more consistently you practice this routine, the more quickly they’ll associate it with bedtime and become drowsy.

Avoid active play or stimulation

Engaging in physical activity close to bedtime overstimulates your child, making it difficult for them to fall asleep. Instead, opt for low-energy activities like reading a book or listening to a lullaby.

Differentiate between night and day

After living in your womb for 9 months, newborns find it difficult to distinguish night from day. You can help them adapt by allowing lots of natural light into your home in the daytime. At night, dim the lights and switch off bright screens to ease their transition to bedtime.

Put your baby to bed drowsy but awake

Experts recommend placing your infant in their crib before they’ve actually fallen asleep. Once they become accustomed to dozing off in your arms, they may resist doing it any other way. Note that the mattress should be covered with a tightly fitted sheet, and the crib should be free of pillows, blankets, and toys to prevent SIDS.

Comfort your baby when they cry

Gently pat and soothe a crying baby in the middle of the night to reassure them of your presence and lull them back to sleep.

Many moms often ask what causes restless sleep? Shorter sleep cycles in newborns, among other factors, are usually to blame for tossing and turning. The problem resolves itself as your baby grows, but you may be able to speed up the process by following the tips outlined above.

https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=newborn-sleep-patterns-90-P02632

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/healthy-baby/art-20046556

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/newborn/art-20045498

https://www.whattoexpect.com/baby-behavior/infant-sleep-patterns.aspx

http://www.columbianeurology.org/neurology/staywell/document.php?id=36578

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/baby-sleep/art-20045014

https://www.sleep.org/articles/sleep-cycles-everything-you-need-to-know/

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-your-babys-sleep-cycle-differs-your-own

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