Your Child’s Sleep Cycles

– what really happens when your child sleeps.

Your child is getting the required number of hours of sleep. But is that all there is to it? Is your child getting good quality sleep throughout the night? What really happens to your child when they go to sleep? What stages of your child’s sleep cycles help their development?

Sleep Cycles

We do not have uniform sleep throughout the night. Throughout the course of the night, our sleep is made up of many rounds of the sleep cycle. Sleep cycles vary from person to person and even from night to night. Off course, the sleep cycles of children vary from that of adults. Each sleep cycle is about 90 to 120 minutes. Each cycle has two stages – the REM sleep (REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement) and the Non REM sleep.

Stages of Sleep cycle

Stages of Sleep Cycle

Non REM Sleep: Also called quiet sleep, Non REM sleep is needed for physical restoration i.e. building bone & muscle, repairing and regenerating tissues and strengthening the immune system. Non REM is further divided into three stages:

Stage I: This is a shallow sleep. It’s when we’ve just gotten into bed, we’ve become drowsy and our eyes are shut, but we are aware of what is happening around us. We can actually hear people. If someone talks about us when we are in this stage, we can listen to it and get up and tell them about it.

Stage II: This is a deeper sleep than Stage I. Our breathing and heart beats slow down, body temperature reduces, muscles relax and brain waves are less active.

Stage III: This is called the slow wave sleep and is a deep sleep. Here, our breathing, heartbeat, body temperature and brain waves reach very low levels. In this period, your child’s body is repairing it’s tissues, boosting the immune system, building up energy for the next day and working on growth & development. 

REM sleep: Also called active sleep, REM Sleep is required for restoring the mind, especially learning and memory. Pediatric Sleep Specialists point out that it is this phase, in which your child’s brain processes the information that it has taken in during the day and stores it in long term memory.

REM is considered a deep sleep. This stage is associated with a lot of dreams. In this stage one can’t move one’s body, but the brain is quite active. In this stage, the body is paralysed, as if one has no power over one’s body. (This is opposed to the Non REM sleep, where one can toss and turn.) As we progress into sleep, we get REM cycles much later in the night.

Percentage of REM Sleep in infants and adults

Sleep Cycles in Children & Adults

The distribution of Non REM and REM sleep changes over a period of time as the child grows.

Infants have short naps and have to get up for a feed. New born babies spend almost equal time in REM and Non REM Sleep (i.e. 50 – 50%). They get into REM sleep first, as soon as they shut their eyes and then have some cycles of Non REM sleep through the night. Thus, they get into a REM sleep, they are restored, they are up, they will feed, go back into REM sleep, short Non REM and then they will get up.

After three – six months of age, they begin having the aforementioned stages of sleep as seen in an adult, instead of one stage of Non REM sleep.

By three years of age, sleep cycles last for about 60 minutes and by about five years, the amount of time spent in each stage of sleep begins to look like that of us adults, i.e. about 90 minutes. Pediatric Sleep Specialist in Mumbai, Dr. Indu Khosla says, “It is normal for children to briefly wake up at the end of each sleep cycle without being aware of it. Some kids may call out during the end of a sleep cycle and may need help settling again.”

baby waking up at end of sleep cycle

Adults enter sleep through the Non REM cycle – Stages I to III and then move into REM. The whole night we oscillate between Stage II, III and REM repeatedly. As the night progresses, in each successive sleep cycle, the REM stage becomes longer and longer. By adulthood, about 20% of sleep is REM while the remaining is Non – REM. The REM sleep also comes later in the night in older children and adults, like maybe after 1.30 or 2 am.

Healthier Sleep Cycles

It is not possible to have full control of your child’s sleep cycles. However, you can take steps to improve your child’s progress through each sleep stage by improving your child’s sleep hygiene. If you notice your child having excess daytime sleepiness or suspect that your child may have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, feel free to get in touch with your Pediatric Sleep Specialist. Tackling underlying issues may help your child have healthier and restorative sleep cycles.


Dr. Indu Khosla is a Pediatric Sleep Specialist & Pediatric Pulmonologist practicing at Andheri in Mumbai. Dr. Indu Khosla can be reached via whatsapp at 8779982090 or via call at 022-26355829 / 022-26300730 or via email at drindunh@gmail.com. Alternatively, you may simply fill out the form below:

Expert Moderator: Dr. Indu Khosla | Blog Author: Dr. Amrita Sodhi

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