Before I had kids I had heard of sleep cycles but until I was working with them to become better sleepers, I never really understood the concept.
Now I do.
We have sleep cycles. The shortest ones are 20 minutes, then 45 minutes and then 2 hour sleep cycles. These are dependent on what kind of sleep you are in, whether it is light and active sleep or deep and still sleep.
Whether you are co-sleeping or independent sleeping, you will need to help your children through these cycles in order for them to become better sleepers.
After the first three months of life, you can start to watch your child for their sleep pattern. Typically, an infant will only sleep about 20 minutes in their crib while they are napping. They are just in a light active sleep for that time and they will need help transitioning into a deeper sleep. If you know that your child wakes at the end of that cycle (which most children do) then be there at their side at that 20 minute interval and make sure that they don’t wake much and soothe them into their deeper sleep.
This will take some time to regulate their bodies but is well worth it!
Even older children can learn to help their bodies back to sleep if they wake during a sleep cycle.
As children become better and more consistent nappers, you’ll find them lengthening their naps to about 45 minutes. But for young children, this still isn’t enough sleep for their growing brains and bodies. This is just one full sleep cycle and they need two. At this point, the children are a little bit older and can often soothe themselves back to sleep. If you hear movement or sound, don’t react immediately. Give them enough time to fall back asleep and if they are getting more agitated then you can help soothe them back to sleep by either rubbing their tummies, rubbing their backs, finding a pacifier, or whatever works best for your child. But naps should be at least and hour and a half– up to three hours if they are only taking one nap.
Again, this will take time and there might be some difficult days, but consistency works and once your child realizes that nap time isn’t over then they will learn to take longer naps.
At night is when I often see the 2 hour sleep cycle take hold. This starts because young infants need to feed that often and even when children no longer need feedings at night, they may wake at those times and will need help learning how to fall back asleep once they wake up.
The concept of helping a child back to sleep during this nighttime cycle is exactly the same. If your child wakes every single night at 10:45pm (and you are no longer feeding at night) then you can go into his room at 10:35/ 10:40 and help your child back to sleep before he really wakes up. You can make shushing noises, rub his belly/ back. You can talk sweet nothings into his ear. Just make sure that they are able to get through their wake cycle without completely waking.
If they do wake completely, do what you can before picking them up. Try to soothe them back to sleep while they are still in their bed. If all else fails, you can pick them up and hold them but the process of them learning to fall back asleep will take a little bit longer.
Once you realize that children aren’t necessarily saying that they are done sleeping when they are just passing from one sleep cycle to the next, you will be better equipped to help them become better sleepers.