Sleep-Wake Patterns in the First Two Years

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

As every new parent knows, babies sleep differently than adults do. In this lesson, we'll look at two key changes in sleep patterns that develop in the first two years of life, the volume and type of sleep.


Jerry is a new father, and he just wants to get some sleep, but his daughter Amy won't let him. Every time he goes to sleep for a few hours, Amy wakes him up with her crying. He feels exhausted and begs Amy to go back to sleep and let him get a few more winks, but she keeps waking him up.

Any parent remembers how tiring it can be to deal with a newborn who doesn't sleep through the night. But eventually, even the most finicky babies will settle into some sort of sleep schedule. This is a normal part of development, or the way people grow and change throughout life.

Let's look closer at two key components of sleep development: the volume of sleep and the type of sleep in infants.

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  • 0:03 Development
  • 0:49 Volume of Sleep
  • 1:58 Type of Sleep
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Volume of Sleep

Though it doesn't seem like it to Jerry, Amy is sleeping a lot. She, like other newborns, gets an average of about 16 hours of sleep per day. That's way more than most adults! In fact, it's the exact opposite of most adults: Amy and other newborns are asleep for an average of 16 hours a day and awake for an average of 8 hours a day. Adults, on the other hand, need about 8 hours of sleep, which allows them to be awake for about 16 hours every day.

Newborns need the extra sleep. Their bodies are growing and changing so rapidly that sleep allows them to shut off and let their bodies repair. Sleep is when most physical growth occurs, so babies will naturally sleep a lot. Amy's little body knows that she needs to grow, and so it shuts down and lets her sleep for the majority of a 24-hour day.

But sleep volume, like other types of growth, changes as Amy ages. By age two, most babies are averaging only 9-12 hours of sleep per day. As their growth slows down, they need less sleep.

Type of Sleep

So if Amy is sleeping 16 hours a day, why does Jerry feel like she's not letting him get enough sleep?

Sleep volume, or the number of hours spent asleep, is only one factor in sleep development. Another key component of sleep development is how a person sleeps. Newborns, like Amy, engage in polyphasic sleep, or sleeping multiple times during a 24-hour period. Amy and other newborns have 6 or 7 periods of sleep per day. That means that, though she's sleeping 16 hours a day, she's not sleeping very long at any given time.

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