Sleep Transitions



Children normally have partial awakenings between sleep cycles. It is during this transition from one stage of sleep to the next where some of the main sleep problems occur because a child is not able to put himself back to sleep on his own. Why? This is often because a child has learned to associate something with falling to
sleep (see sleep props/associations) and needs to have this reestablished to fall back to sleep again. Often this begins when well meaning parents rush to their child when he starts to arouse during light sleep assuming he needs something instead of leaving him alone to fall back asleep which he would most likely do if he wasn't in need of food.
  • A child is also going to have a harder time making it through a sleep transition if he is overtired so if you are having problems with sleep transitions be very observant of sleep cues and waketimes.
  • Gina Ford believes that the day time sleep problems (e.g. short naps) that many babies start to experience around 2-3 months are due in part to the newly developing sleep cycle which often leads babies to wake up after sleep transitions. She believes this is especially true if baby is used to sleeping in a day time atmosphere or needs outside help to get to sleep (see sleep prop/associations).

At NIGHT a child usually remains in deep sleep for 1-2 hours before having a partial awakening, so this is why you may hear your child suddenly cry out after being asleep for this long. A child then may or may not have a period of REM sleep followed by another period of deep non-REM sleep lasting 30 minutes to 2 hours and then ending with another partial awakening. What this all means in regards to night time sleep is that your child is going to be in his deepest sleep of the night for the first 3-4 hours, after which time brief awakenings are going to be more common (and frustrating if he is unable to put himself back to sleep without your assistance) because he is in lighter sleep for around the next 4 hours. This is why your child may have been sleeping perfectly until you end up going to sleep yourself. Perfect timing huh?! The last 1-2 hours of sleep in the morning are usually very deep once again in children so your child is less likely to have partial awakenings. It is uncommon for an adult to experience this deep sleep stage again since he doesn't usually sleep long enough for it to happen. I also often hear that children that are sleeping around 10-12 hours a night go into a light sleep again in the morning. I know this is the case with my son but I haven't officially found it in a research book yet so don't take my word on this one!

At NAP time your child over 3 months will probably go through a sleep transition some time between 35-50 minutes after he falls asleep (if he can't make it through these he'll end up with short naps). He will then usually go from non-REM to REM (light sleep) sleep for 5-10 minutes then have another period of non-REM sleep (see sleep stages for more information on REM and non-REM sleep).

After a while you'll probably be able to determine your baby's sleep transition times like clock work (although they do change a bit with age). This can be very useful if you have a baby that is sensitive to sound and you need to keep quiet at this time or if you are working on methods to extend a nap.


25 comments :

  1. GREAT SITE!
    Any suggestions on how to assist a 4 month old through these transitions? Would CIO be the quickest route out of this? He wakes like clockwork at 45 minutes but goes back to sleep then goes 6 hours from his last feeding, then wakes every couple hours. Up until now I thought he was waking due to hunger so I suspect I have reinforced the wakeups with feeding. I am trying to keep a consistent wake time of 7:30 but am finding that he is usually in a very deep sleep and feel bad about waking him (thoughts on whether I should wake or not? He would sleep until about 8:30).
    Routine:
    Feed - 6pm
    Asleep - 6:30
    DF - 10 (I've just implemented)
    wake 1 - midnight if no DF, otherwise 2:30am, feed and back to sleep
    wake 2 - about 5am, feed and back to sleep until I wake him at 7:30

    Thank you! Robin

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    1. Sunshine,
      Sorry I never saw this comment. I'm assuming the issue as been fixed by now ;)

      Rachel

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    2. Hi Rachel,
      My nearly 4 month old has this exact problem. My baby goes to sleep all by herself like a champ during naps and at bedtime (7pm) but then like clockwork 30mins in she wakes up. Our routine is below. What advice would you have given "Sunshine"? My baby is a bit over 11 lbs and averages about 20oz of formula daily if that helps.

      Routine after her daily bath:
      7pm - asleep
      7:30 - wakes up, looks around. Regardless of if she sees me or not, she starts screaming ANGRY cries. I know she's not hungry b/c sh was fed at 6:30 or 7pm
      10am - Dream Feed (usually she eats 2oz or so)
      12:30am - Wakes up SCREAMING MAD! When offer a bottle, only drinks 1 oz.
      2:30 - Same story, Wakes up SCREAMING MAD! When offer a bottle, only drinks 1 oz.
      5:00am - Wakes up upset but eats 3oz
      7/7:15am - I wake her up to start the day, but she only eats 1 or 2 oz since she ate at 5/5:30am

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  2. Regarding sleep transition issues I am not sure how to handle them being on a eat, wake, sleep routine (Babywise). The just appeared out of the blue during day time naps, never being an issue before. Sleep still works great during night (She just turned three months).

    We have been trying the "wake to sleep method" which works 1 out of 4 times, the other 3 times she is just a happy chap believing that it's time to have a chat and play. Now to my question; should I fed her if she won't fall back to sleep? If so this will mean that I need to feed her every 2 hours unless she doesn't fall back to sleep any of her naps. This is what I have been doing and she eats a full fed almost every time but as the day go she gets more cranky, sleeps shorter cycles and I believe that the milk just isn't enough as she ends up eating so frequently. We have also tried to get her up, feed her and then put her straight back to bed. Sometimes she accepts laying there drowsing, but it can take up to 50 minutes before she goes to actual sleep.

    The other option is to wait until she was supposed to eat had she slept the whole sleep cycle, but this would result in that she would be awake about an hour or so, get a fed and that be put back for a new nap, which would turn the routine to a eat, sleep, wake routine.

    Also, is the sleep transition issue age related and will just go away or could it be here to stay unless we manage to break it?

    My understanding is also that there is a growth spurt around three months of age and as she is born a few weeks early the "smooth transitions" wounder week just have started timing the growth spurt.

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    1. Test,
      It's always good to consider a growth spurt. If she's eating a full feed at each feeding maybe it is that. If it continues for several days, consider that it may be turning into more of a habit. If she is getting progressively tired throughout the day, consider shortening wake times a bit, adding in an extra nap and/or having an earlier bedtime.

      The short naps can be very age related. Look over the short nap post and extending nap post if you haven't already (found in index). The short naps can be broken sometimes though. I suggest trying to extend them through various methods for several days time. If no luck, try again o extend them in a month or two if thy don't extend on their own. With babies this young, I often suggest hoping them extend the nap out(offer a pacifier etc) if possible. If not, there are several options, many you've discussed. You we'd to see what works best for you two. Some people will drop the feeds down to make eat/wake sleep work but I prefer to change the routine aroun.see the eat/activity/sleep post in the index for more

      Rachel

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  3. Hi Rachel,
    been reading through ur blog trying to figure out my baby's issues. my baby is 6months old and still not sleeping through the night or taking full naps. Unfortunately I have always used a sleep prop by nursing him to sleep. wish I had read about sleeping solutions sooner.
    my babytakes 3naps a day. but wakes up wailing after just 40 mins sometimes even 20mins. most of the time he will want to nurse back to sleep. then he will sleep another 30 mins or so.. he goes to bed at 700pm everyday n starts his day at 630-700am. we have established a bed time routine that ends with nursing to sleep :( he wakes up 3 to 4times a night only to nurse to sleep. we also cosleep.
    I have tried crying it out to sleep sometimes it works but most of the time he cries til he gets too worked up and it kills me to see him that way.
    how do I help my baby to take longer naps and get through his sleep transitions and also sleep through the night. I've even tried shush-pat that too did not work. please help me help my baby...

    aj

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    1. My baby is the exact same way. Did you find anything that helped with the short naps?

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  4. I am also trying to figure out my baby's nap issue. He used to rock easily to sleep. But now it seems as if he fights every nap. He has just turned 4 months old. It takes me bouncing, swaying and rocking to get him to sleep. Often after he finally falls asleep, he wakes as soon as I lie him down. If he stays asleep, it is for 30 minutes...I can set a clock to it! Every 2 hours during the day, he gets tired and sleeps 30 minutes or less. He sleeps well through the night and is not hard to put down at night. I nurse him to sleep currently. He will wake about every other night for one feeding, but goes back to sleep very easily. Any suggestions?

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    1. This is exactly my current situation. I was wondering how your little one got through it. What worked didn't work?

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  5. Hi Rachel

    I have been reading your articles like crazy for the past few days. I am a first time Mom of a wonderful 4 month old girl. She is happy and healthy, with the exception of some reflux we are treating with hypoallergenic formula, zantac 2x per day, and Maalox when needed. She is also eating oatmeal cereal 2x per day.

    She has always been on a strict bedtime routine (bath, stories, bottle, bed) since she was about 3 weeks old. SInce that time she has always fallen asleep completely on her own and slept through until her next feeding (with the exception of a few growth spurts), usually 6-10 hrs depending on her age. Nap times have been the same, with a similar routine and falling asleep on her own. However, lately, it has been really difficult to KEEP her asleep, especially during naps. She will go down without a problem, but will wake 25-30 minutes later. She seems generally happy, just talking to herself in her crib, but she is yawning and Im not sure she is getting enough daytime sleep, because before she was taking a nice 2 hour nap in the am, followed by 45 min naps after that.

    Night time has also become an issue, she has been waking after falling asleep after one hour, screaming in her crib. We originally thought growth spurt, but lately she hasn;t been hungry and it's been over a week. After reading your site, Im thinking she has a sleep transition problem? My problem lies with the fact that she is very gassy and her reflux. How do I know that shes not in pain if I want to teach her to go back to sleep on her own? I do not want to pick her up every time she cries (and she doesnt get picked up while going TO sleep if she gets fussy, I let her sort it out on her own), but I've picked her up from her crib and gotten a burp out and think maybe that;s whats bugging her.

    Is this a phase that will hopefully pass? If not, and we decide to sleep train - how should we go about it? AS far as the rest of our routine, we are very busy during the day but I always make sure she gets 2 out of her 3 naps at home, and bedtime we never veer from.

    There is one other issue, too. Lately it seems as if she's gotten into the habit of waking up at 5am every day, only to eat and go back to sleep for 2 hours or so. I understand that she still probably needs a feeding during the night, but how (if we can) do we move this feeding up? Or can she wait until wake up the next morning? If she wakes around 5 i"ll let her sleep until about 8, but if she didnt wake my goal would be to wake around 7.

    I hope all of this makes sense, and that you can shed some light on any of it! Every one says to follow your own instincts, but as a first time mom they are very rusty! I think I just need someone to point me in the right direction.

    Thanks for your help!
    Amy

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  6. Hi Rachel!

    You can't imagine how grateful i'm to your work and this wonderful site you made.I'm a first time mother of a sunshine 6month baby girl.She have been a very good sleeper right until she got eczema at 4 months,that ruined all her routine and i know i had also my part in it just because i could't see her suffering.Now we have got a huge problem with the sleep transition.Past few days she has been falling asleep by her own BUT with a very short naps and EVERY hour waking ups at the night right until 10 pm then she sleeps relatively good.My question is what should i do to somehow fix it,i've tried almost everything from wake timing control till trying to prolong her nap duration.Even soothing her back to sleep by rocking not always works at night and i just have to let her cry & stay awake until 10pm.CIO doesn't work for her she can cry her lungs out but wont sleep earlier than 10-11ish... I desperately need help.

    TIA

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  7. Hello - Thanks for all the info.
    It feels like my son (3 mths) is making no progress with sleep! You are right his first 4hrs are typically the best, the next 3 feel awful, and then the last few are restful.
    He goes to bed easily - swaddled, but not fully asleep and gets himself to sleep within mins (with paci which typically falls out within min. of being in crib).
    He will sleep 3h first. Feed, go back to bed for maybe 2h. And then he seems to wake every 1.5h or so.
    We dont know the best approach. Ill let him whine a bit in the crib, but this can go on....
    Ill put his paci in for him, he will sleep, but again for a short period only. Any tips on getting through this lighter sleep stage?? I end up bringing him to my bed.
    Any thoughts appreciated

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    1. Eparkinson,
      First off, work on getting him to go to sleep at bedtime a little more awake. This often helps with the night wakings. The main thing you need to do to help with these night wakings is teach him to go back to sleep on his own when he wakes during them--and be consistent with whatever method you choose to do this. And try to have him do the falling asleep by himself (although you may help some) in his own bed. Make a plan and stick to it and the results will come. At this age, he'll likely start getting upset when he's left very long in his bed at this time unless he's an angel sleeper. So you need to keep that in mind with whatever method you choose (look under the sleep training label and books by sleep training method post under above label). I can't really tell you which method to use bc I don't know you and your situation enough, but just try to choose something that you know you can follow through with.

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  8. Hi Rachel
    Thanks for this blog, its a great resource and v much appreciated.
    I have a really great and well natured little 9 wk old girl, who sleeps well generally for her age but one issue we have is that though in the day she will sleep for 1-2.5hr in a sling or buggy, that in her moses basket in the day time the naps are ALWAYS 30 mins. So its clearly this thing you say of not being able to get through sleep transitions on her own.
    My question is this though - if I use the techniques that you suggest (eg shush pat or holding her back/stomach) to help her through the sleep transition at 30 mins, is the idea that quickly over time eg in the next few weeks she learns to go through this transition by herself? Or is it just a waiting game until she is a little older and more fully developed? I'd love to know the answer to this and what to realistically expect re extending the daytime naps when she is in her moses basket/crib. Many thanks indeed again, Leo

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  9. Hi there,
    I just found your blog and it has been so helpful! I was reallly against "scheduling" before baby was born for the same reason mentioned on your post regarding routines/schedules. Now I am realizing how necessary a routine is both for baby and myself. I am trying to follow Babywise and get into the eat/wake/sleep cycle, but my baby is a snacker so it hasn't been too easy. I have just been picking up on the fact that baby only naps 45 min to the minute, and I am positive it is due to sleep transitions (she is 4 months and for the last 4 months I have picked her up as soon as she woke up and made the slightest sound). She wakes up hollering and then falls back asleep when I nurse her. Same thing at night, but right now I am trying to focus on naps. I have tried wake to sleep for the past 2 days, but she still jolts awake at 45 min. Any suggestions- should I make her cry it out at the 45 min mark, or will continuing the wake to sleep be sufficient? Thanks.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Boon,
      None of my kids have liked sleep and two of them have detested it above all less. They all sleep great now though (although they'd all rather be up playing). You just have to be consistent and set firm limits and sleep will improve.

      best,
      rachel

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  11. FM day one. With b&g twins. Bath bottle awake in bed. They wake up every 4hrs same schedule since left NICU. AM NEW PARENT so I didn't know about sleep training till month7.5. Turned 1yr 4/21. Bb fell asleep after only first visit. Bbg otherwise DEAR LORD. Crying like someone killing her. 3rd visit it took and fell asleep under 2min on the 3rd visit. Takes 2-3naps during day. 10a-12p- & 3or4pm. All naps one hr. Most of the time bbb on his last nap at 4. Which sometimes they skip. He wakes up cranky like he wants another nap. And ends up falling asleep for another 30min. What can I do next? Am I doing ok?

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    1. Tyty,
      Sorry to not see this until now. I think you are doing great. Naps and waketime lengths will keep changing with time (see waketime length and nap length post or sleep averages post). You just have to keep adjusting slowly with them. It is tricky at first but you'll get the hang of things. Remember that one baby may need a little more sleep than another so adjust for that a little bit by putting one to bed a bit later or letting them sleep a bit longer. Good luck! Twins are a lot of work. I'm sure you are doing marvelously!

      rachel

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  12. Hi Rachel
    I also have bg twins 5.5months and day 2 of Ferber. My question is how to handle night waking where baby doesn't cry or call out but just plays or babbles. My girl often does this even before training. She did last night . I would typically feed a small bottle 4oz but would ideally like to wean. If I leave her she sometimes will fuss but I usually cave and feed before she cries . Should I go to her right when she wakes, or start checks only when she cries? I want to do what is best to promote sleeping through. I'm working on lessening amount in bottles every few days.

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  13. Rachel,

    Up until the past couple of days my one month old son has been an excellent napper, which is why I was so surprised when his naps began being, well, less than excellent. He has recently begun waking up fussing after being asleep for a half hour. I know he is still tired because as soon as I give him a binky or rock his cradle he falls back asleep. I have tried to let him put himself back to sleep..which he will once in a while, but most of the time he won't unless I give him his binky or rock his bed. Also, I find it strange that he wants these things because he does not need them when he initially falls asleep. Any advice on helping him to stay asleep without waking up or what I should do when he does wake up?

    Thanks, Allie

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  14. Oh, and I forgot to mention that after he wakes up after being asleep for a half hour…he continues to wake up and fuss every 5-10 minutes wanting his binky or to be rocked in his cradle again. When I do these things..he immediately falls back asleep!

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    1. Allie hickey,
      So, you've reached a time when the sleep prop (you, binkie) are interfering with sleep. There isn't a great answer to deal with this. Either you keep offering the prop (over and over), or you get rid of the prop so he can sleep without it. I would probably not rush to making a change right now, he may change again in a few days. He is very little and full of change and he may also be in a extra rough stage or fussy time. If you drop the pacifier, I would still consider offering it if he has a fussy evening time--and don't be surprised if napping is rough then without lots of your help too.

      best,
      rachel

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  15. Hi Rachel, my 3 month old is having problems with sleep transitions, especially at nap time. He's only ever been able to fall asleep on me, using me as his sleep prob. In the last week I've been trying to train him to sleep in his crib. He wakes up exactly 35 minutes from when he falls asleep, and of course, can't put himself back to sleep. Will he eventually learned how to put himself back to sleep on his own, if my methods fail? I have always had to nurse him to sleep night, but I am now trying to put him in his crib drowsy but awake, with no progress. Any help would be appreciated!!

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  16. Hi, I need some help. My son Malachi is 3 months old and I want to start sleep training him. He doesn't have a bedtime or feeding routine. I have no idea where to start. For example at 7:30 pm can I start his routine? I'd like to read him a passage from the Bible, sing a short song and bathe him. What order should I do that? Also, after the routine is done am I supposed to just put him down in his crib or do I rock him until he's drowsy?

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