The Biology Of Sleep

by Jennie on August 30, 2011

Since having Cody I have been a little obsessed with baby sleep. Mama needs her beauty rest and what a shock it was to my system when my beautiful little newborn didn’t share in my need for sleep at night! I did do sleep training with Cody out of sheer necessity and I know for sure I want to do the same with Grayson too. Getting into a routine allows me to have my sanity and I have found that Cody has thrived off of it too! Win-Win!! I am no expert in baby sleep so what works for us may not work for you so I have never really preached baby sleep on this blog, but we have had a sleep specialist guest post from time to time. She is back on “The Biology Of Sleep“. It is totally fascinating to me. I have done a lot of what Kathy recommends with the eat, play, sleep schedule and Cody has adapted very well with that. And what she writes about… their behavior is a direct result from the amount of sleep they are getting…. I can vouch for that too! Cody is a totally different child if he hasn’t slept well vs. when he does. For those of you who desire a nice routine with your kids or looking for answers on baby sleep please check out this post and all the others Kathy has written on here or feel free to email her (contact info included below)! Happy Sleep :)

baby sleep

Aren't they just so darn cute when they sleep?!

So here’s the deal with sleep:  it is governed by our circadian rhythm aka our internal clock.  I can get all scientific here and talk about the circadian 25hr cycle etc etc but I’ll spare you the (incredibly interesting – well at least to me it is) scientific terms, research and information and just say that our internal clock is what regulates all of our body’s internal processes – sleep, hunger, body temperature, changes in blood pressure etc.  The circadian rhythm is regulated by daylight, waking our bodies up when it’s bright and sunny outside and winding us down as the evening approaches.  Other daily activities such as work, going out with friends, spending time with family, eating regular meals etc all help regulate our internal clock.  It is these regular activities we engage on a daily basis that invokes certain responses in our bodies such as feeling hungry and sleepy at certain times.  If you eat around the same time every day, you will feel hungry at that time; if you go to sleep around 10:30pm every night, you will feel sleepy at that time.  Our bodies learn through consistent repetition and adapt accordingly.

This is why it’s important to have a regular schedule and stick to it as much as possible – even on the weekends – to maintain our body clock.  If our schedule is off-kilter due to events such as vacation (ie. travelling to different time zones) or daylight savings, our bodies react by feeling ‘off’ – sluggish,  sleepy or hungry at random times.  We don’t feel very good.  We aren’t energized.  We are cranky.  When our internal clock is thrown off, we live in an internal state of chaos;  similar to what shift workers feel like (I’ve done shift work – it is hard) or those who are constantly travelling to different time zones.   Jet lag is a good example of our internal clock trying to adjust to a new time zone; the effects of jet lag include tiredness, trouble focusing due to sleep deprivation, trouble staying awake when we should and have trouble eating when we should.  We are hungry at odd times according to our local time.  Our immune system is affected, making us more susceptible to colds and illnesses.  We may suffer from temporary insomnia until our bodies synch up to our regular schedule and until then, we don’t feel very good.

Now think about this from a child’s perspective.

Newborns are born with an immature circadian rhythm which translates into day/night confusion.  Random sleep patterns occur throughout the day and night.   As a baby grows, his circadian rhythm matures, becoming more regulated with age aided by daily schedules and environmental cues.   While it is not recommended to put newborns on a strict eat/feed schedule due to their immature body clocks and their need for on-demand feeding and sleeping, it is certainly encouraged to establish a healthy routine of eat, play, sleep.  Getting baby into such a routine that has nothing to do with the clock but consistent exposure to these environmental cues will help establish his circadian rhythm during the maturation process.  Be sure to keep baby around bright sunlight during the day and keep the lights dim at night so that baby learns night is for sleep.

It’s wise to put a baby who is 6mos or older on a more firm sleep/feed schedule.  Children thrive on routine and the predictability of a stable schedule will help stave off the anxiety they experience as they begin to learn and assert their independence.  Remember that children rely on their parents to feed and put them to bed so when a child is not on any sort of routine or schedule, put to bed or fed at random times, it will be impossible for their body to set and maintain their internal clock running at an optimal level.   Inconsistent sleep/wake times will eventually affect their overall quality of sleep, causing accumulated sleep debt which in turn, results in an overtired child.  Children who are not on a good schedule have a hard time settling to sleep, are difficult, don’t eat very well (or barely eat at all!), usually have behavioural issues (tantrums/meltdowns) and are generally unhappy.  Essentially, your child will live in a state similar to jet lag – his body always trying to adjust to an inconsistent schedule which ultimately will create anxiety, restlessness and sleep deprivation throughout the day and night.  When a child is not relaxed, he will have an extremely difficult time settling into sleep and the result is an overtired, cranky and fussy child.   Studies have shown that children who do not practice healthy sleep habits early on often carry their sleep disturbances and poor sleep habits into adulthood and may suffer from insomnia, frequent illnesses due to a weaker immune system,  have trouble focusing/concentrating on things and have trouble remembering things.  Lack of sleep has impacts on your overall health and sleep deprivation is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and a myriad of other health complications from poor sleep – this is a fact that we all know.

Age-appropriate routine and schedules will only benefit your child in the long-run and a solid schedule will help your child meet his daily sleep requirements and ensure your child is well rested.  Establishing healthy sleep habits as early as possible is important as these are habits that he will have for the rest of his life.  A good schedule also makes it easier for your family to plan out your day, prepare for  events such as vacation, family outings, DST and nap transitions.

Of course, not all children need a parent to dictate a schedule for them; there are some easy-going babies who happen to do this all on their own.  My daughter never did so it was up to me to ensure that she had an age-appropriate schedule and give her every opportunity to sleep in addition to making sure that she was well-fed throughout the day.  If you child happens to fall into a great schedule all on her own and she’s sleeping and eating well, go with it.

As always, go with your instincts.  If you feel your child is tired and needs more sleep, he probably does.   Making sure your child has the right amount of sleep is best for your entire family because we all know that dealing with a screaming, overtired child is hard!

Come visit me at or, if you would like more information about sleep, please feel free to contact me via email

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