I’ve always thought the phrase, “I slept like a baby,” sounds crazy to me. I hear this and think, you woke up every 2 hours? I am so sorry!!!
As a professional newborn photographer, I get to spend dozens of hours each week with precious newborns - and their 100% exhausted and sleep-deprived parents. And know that when these new Mommies and Daddies fall asleep at my studio it is best to let them nap, while my team and snuggle and photograph their newborn.
Babies vs. Adults: And why don’t they sleep?
I’m a big believer in the idea that the more you know about an unpleasant situation, the better you can tolerate it. Brain imaging and monitoring has illuminated the mysteries of sleep more than ever before, and scientists can now tell us exactly what’s happening when babies sleep (or don’t sleep!) By learning the why’s of your baby’s short sleep bursts and frequent waking may help you weather the storm a bit better.
And remember: as with all things pertaining to developmental phases, “this too shall pass.”
I know that isn't much help now, but soon it will get better.
How much sleep do babies need per day?
Keep in mind that, as with adults, some babies need less sleep than others, On average, most newborns will need:
Newborns need around 16 hours of sleep
3-month old babies need roughly 15 hours of sleep
6-month old babies and up require about 12 hours of sleep
These “average hours” are divided up through the day and night. An infant may be awake and asleep almost proportionally throughout a 24-hour day for the first few weeks or so. By three-months, she or he will probably take at least two- and perhaps three naps per day, and then sleep most of the night - waking up for feedings or for a much-needed change.
By six-months to a year, solid foods help to fill the baby’s tummy for longer, which means you may get as much as five or six hours of sleep at a time. If your baby is waking you up more than that, it may be that he or she is very active and needs the nourishment OR that your baby hasn’t learned how to self-soothe just yet. Which is ok. You haven't done anything wrong!
Babies are burning tons of liquid calories
First, it’s important to understand that the combination of a very small stomach (about the size of your baby’s fist) and a liquid diet digests rapidly. This is why babies need to consume their daily caloric intake consistently throughout the day and the night. This nourishment is integral to their brain and body development, and this is part of why their sleep cycle varies so much from older children and adults.
Development vs. processing
When babies are sleeping, their bodies are doing some crazy rapid-fire development. When a baby is in the REM phase or the deeper phase of sleep, sleepfoundation.org states he or she is, “...developing, consolidating, and solidifying various cognitive and physical skills.” Because these are all so new, and physical growth is occurring at the same time, this development burns far more calories than your brain does during REM when it processes the day’s events.
They’re growing and changing at unbelievable rates (a fact your newborn photos will attest to when your baby is three-, five-, and nine-months old, and it’s hard to believe he or she started out so small…), and that requires 24/7 nourishment.
Your REM length is longer
REM or the "rapid eye movement cycles" are when sleep is most effective, and when the aforementioned brain development and processing occurs. While adults spend about 25% of their sleeping time in REM cycles, which is about 1.5 to two-hours per night, babies only spend about 50 minutes there during individual sleep sessions. But, since they only sleep for a couple or hours or so per session, that accounts for as much as 50% of their sleep time.
About every three months or so, for the first year, a baby’s sleep cycle shifts, until the patterns are closer to that of an older child’s and adult’s. - Knowing this can help when you are feeling the "pain" of your little one not sleeping like you think they should be.
Babies transition more frequently between deep- and light sleep cycles than adults.
That said, babies spend more time transitioning between REM (deep sleep) and NREM (lighter sleep) than we do. These transitions almost always cause them to wake up until they learn to self-soothe. (don't worry they will eventually learn how to do this)
Now, when an newborn baby is developing, they may be ravenous, which makes it impossible to self-soothe until they are fed again. As baby transitions between nine- and twelve-months old, however, s/he’ll start to sleep for longer periods of time.
On a side note, here’s a fun tip: when your newborn transitions from REM to NREM and vice-versa, that’s when he or she smiles! During our sessions, we take special attention to that moment so we can capture adorable smiles of your little one! Even though Dads will always say it is gas... we know it is not. :)