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Is This Baby Awake or Sleeping? Newborn REM Sleep

If we consider how fast our infants are developing and remember that development is the very cause of interruption to sleep in the first few years of life, it would make sense that anything that happens in the crib/bed is normal.

The much talked about “sleep regressions” are developmental advancements that interrupt sleep. As the brain grows and our infants develop new skills, all of this learning must be incorporated into the sleep repertoire. Often, it appears that these skills are being practiced in sleep.

When we watch brain waves and brain activity during sleep, it looks like the last thing that is happening is actual rest. The brain is very busy during sleep, and with all the learning happening in the first few years of life, the infant’s sleeping brain is perhaps the busiest in the house. What looks like wakeful periods in the night can often be light sleep cycles where the child is practicing a new skill.  I have a client who recently referred to her baby doing what she called “the zombie crawl.” What her daughter was doing was crawling in her sleep.

Here is a list of what infants can be doing in light sleep. To parents, it may appear that the child is awake and/or needs assistance.

  • smiling
  • laughing
  • crying
  • rolling
  • rocking on hands and knees
  • crawling
  • standing
  • walking

Here is a baby in REM sleep. Notice that there are moments when he looks like he is beginning to wake.

However, in this video, the baby is asleep the entire time. You can see how a parent may think the baby is awake and pick him up out of sleep.

At this moment, I think of the three R’s of the RIE Approach.

  1. Respect – Give the child a moment.
  2. Reflect – Does the child need my help, or is this something that he can manage?
  3. Respond – How will I respond if he wakes from this light sleep phase? Does he need me to respond at all or just be close at hand?
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