You’re going to have to excuse me, I’m going unleash my inner geek this week! I think our bodies (and more specifically our brains) are SO clever, that when I get the chance to natter on about any of our natural processes, I get a little excited! I’ll try to make it as interesting as possible, obvs!
You may think that when we fall asleep, that’s it, we stay asleep until the morning, unless we have a particularly bad night when we keep waking, right? Wrong! Actually, we all wake multiple times a night, it’s just most of the time we just don’t remember. For most of us, we just roll over and go back to sleep not remembering any of it in the morning, although we may have quickly checked the clock, turned our pillow over or adjusted the duvet to get a little more comfortable because we’re content that all is as it should be (evolutionarily this would have been our opportunity to check there weren’t any wooly mammoths or sabre toothed tigers nearby).
For children though, if things aren’t quite the way they were when they fell to sleep, these brief awakenings can cause a bit of a stir (often for everyone in the house!). Let’s put ourselves in their position. If you as an adult fell asleep in your bedroom with your partner laid next to you, but woke up and suddenly realised that all the furniture had been moved around and your partner was missing – you’d probably be pretty freaked out, wouldn’t you? Well, in a way, that’s what’s happening to your little darling when the thing they’ve relied on to get to sleep (a prop) isn’t there when they wake, whether that’s Mummy or Daddy sitting with them, falling asleep having some milk etc etc.
I’ll admit, I’ve gone a little off topic – I promise I’ll talk more about ‘ sleep props’ another time, but let’s get back on topic.
So, back to the mechanics of sleep (cue my geeky little seat dance). For us adults, there are 4 stages of sleep (although the clever bods used to say 5, they re-categorised it to 4 stages by consolidating 2 of the stages into one) which are Stages 1 – 3 and REM or dream sleep which we cycle through throughout the night.
All about the stages
Stage 1 is that really light sleep where if you started to nod off on the sofa and someone nudges you, you would deny, deny, deny that you were in fact asleep (even though you were). Stage 2 is still pretty light but back to the sofa scenario, you’d probably admit that you had just dozed off for a tick. Stage 3 however, is deep sleep (this is where there used to be 2 stages, but now just the one), where it’s very difficult to be woken. And finally comes the fourth stage, which is REM (rapid eye movement) or dream sleep, where our bodies are temporarily paralysed (to stop us acting out our dreams!) although our eyes are, yup, you guessed it, likely to be rapidly moving under our eyelids.
Although even scientists and researchers don’t fully understand sleep in its entirety, they do know that stages 3 and 4 are really important. Deep sleep (stage 3) is for our body; the chance for it to rejuvenate, grow, heal itself and fight infection. Dream sleep is more for the mind as it’s during this phase that we consolidate information we have learnt as well as aiding our memory and learning ability.
Interestingly, although we cycle through the stages in the same order throughout the night (with the brief awakenings I talked about earlier happening around stage 1), the amount of sleep in each cycle we get changes during the night. So we spend more time in stages 1 -3 earlier in the night and more time in stage 4 closer to the morning – which explains why you’re more likely to wake when the alarm goes thinking you’re still in a dream, as you probably were!
The exception being…
Having said all of this, newborns only have 2 stages (deep and dream sleep) with each cycle lasting about 45 minutes until they are around 4 months old, then BAM, the ‘dreaded 4 month sleep regression’ can occur. Personally, I think the term regression is too negative, so I’m going to refer to it as a PROgression, as usually these disturbances are because your little one is learning a new skill, or in the case of the 4 month progression, their sleep is starting to consolidate and become more like an adults by shifting from just two stages to the full four. So this is the only time that the sleep disturbances could be here to stay (if they’re not managed quite right).
Their sleep cycle slowly starts to lengthen, and by about 3 years old it will be around an hour long, reaching the adult length of about 90 minutes when they reach school age.
But how much sleep do we actually need? Interestingly, when you Google it, there’s plenty of variation (as I’m sure you can imagine), but this chart (based on info from sleepfoundation.org) is a pretty good guide. Obviously, as we’re all different, with different levels of activity etc, our need for sleep is just as unique. And of course, if we’re already sleep deprived, we’re likely to need far more sleep than our average counterpart to make up for the hours of shut-eye that we’ve missed out on.
So, if you’re getting nowhere near the amount of sleep you need, not only are you going to feel pretty rubbish the next day, you’re also not giving your body and mind the valuable chance it needs to it’s thing while you rest. Who knew sleep was quite so important, huh?…
There we go, a bit of an insight into how we sleep, hopefully it helps explain any problems your little one (or you!) might be having with your sleep, although as ever, you know where I am if you’d like a chat to find out how I can help you.