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Newborn Sleep Stages - Newborn Photography Tutorial

Most newborn photography sessions involve at least some photos of baby sleeping. When a newborn is asleep you are able to gently and carefully place them into positions (poses) that wouldn't be possible if they were awake. As such, it’s incredibly useful to learn about newborn sleep cycles and their stages of sleep (and how you can tell the stages apart). Learning about their sleep cycles will help you know what to expect and how to prolong their sleep for as long as possible. 

Sleep Cycles 

Newborns spend about 16-18 hours (on average) per day sleeping. A typical newborn sleep cycle lasts between 50-60 minutes long. When a newborn completes a sleep cycle they will either wake up or go on to have another sleep cycle (or two or three!). The type of sleep they have can be divided into two stages/types; Active Sleep (Light Sleep) and Quiet Sleep (Deep Sleep). 

Active Sleep (Light Sleep) 

Also called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep, Active Sleep is the first stage of a newborn’s sleep cycle and is characterised by fluttering eyelids, rapid and irregular breathing, occasional body movements (twitching), vocalisations (grunts or brief cries) and occasional smiles (which are extremely cute!). You can watch this in action by searching Youtube for 'REM newborn'. A way to recall this stage is to remember that 'Active Sleep' is when they are most active. This is not the time to try and get newborns into more difficult poses as they are more likely to awaken during this light sleep stage. As such, this is the stage where you will need to settle them the most, to prevent them waking up whilst being handled or moved.

Quiet Sleep (Deep Sleep)

Also called NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep. Once a newborn has entered this deep stage of sleep, known as Quiet Sleep, you can attempt the more difficult poses. A way to recall this sleep stage is to remember that 'Quiet Sleep' is in fact when newborns are the most still and quiet. While in Quiet Sleep, newborns are less likely to be woken up by noise and movement/posing. A newborn will generally enter this deeper stage of sleep about half way through a sleep cycle (after being in Active Sleep for around 25 minutes or so). You can tell when a newborn has entered the Quiet Sleep stage as their breathing becomes slower and more rhythmic, they move a lot less, their eyelids don’t flutter anymore, their muscles become relaxed and their limbs floppy. You can test for ‘floppy limbs’ by gently lifting their arm/hand and letting it drop a short distance (onto your hand, beanbag or somewhere soft). 

Awake Time

After 1, 2, 3 or 4 sleep cycles, baby will wake up. If they have been asleep for 2 or 3 hours (or more) they will likely be hungry when they wake up and need a feed straight away. Newborns generally don’t stay awake for more than about 60-90 minutes at a time. When they are ready to sleep again they will show signs of tiredness like yawning, jerky arm and leg movements, frowning/looking worried or staring into space. Once you see signs of tiredness, start using the settling methods, described later in this article, to help them fall into a slumber.

newborn posing tips and tricks

Prolonging Sleep

As mentioned earlier, newborns sleep in cycles which can be singular or joined together. If you would like to keep baby asleep (only if they fed in the last 1-2 hours) then you need to encourage them to move onto another sleep cycle instead of waking up! Don’t try and get baby to sleep longer than 3 hours past their last fed though, as they will probably be hungry!

When baby starts to rouse, and you want them to sleep a bit longer, then use the following settling methods to try and get baby to enter another sleep cycle:

Settling Methods

  • Holding/Pressure (using your hands)
  • Rocking/Patting
  • Baby Shusher or 'ommm' sound
  • Sucking (Dummy/Pacifier)

When handling baby, make sure your hands are warm, not cold, so as not to startle them. If you tend to have cold hands, then wearing soft, non-scratchy cotton gloves is a great idea.

Below is a chart I created to help show when is the best time to try different poses (after you have been taught by a professional and experienced newborn photographer on how to pose newborns, of course!)

 how to get newborn to sleep longer


Til next time,

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