After hearing the phrase ‘sleeping like a baby’ all our lives, actually observing our own children and seeing the level of activity that happens when babies are supposed to be sleeping is a shock. New parents who have had the foundations of safe sleep and ‘back is best’ may worry these crib antics are not normal or put their child at risk.
It is normal for babies to end up sideways or in the corner of the crib, and as they develop more muscle tone, they will move even more! Babies are very active sleepers because they spend most of their sleep time in REM sleep (the dream cycle). As long as you are adhering to age-appropriate safety precautions, your little one should be fine.
In this article, we will address the common concerns parents have about their babies moving around the crib, break down why babies move around so much, and some tips to make sure your baby stays safe.
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Baby moves around while sleeping in crib
Babies move more in their sleep than some office workers move in an entire day, and all that activity is pure biology: babies have wildly different sleep patterns than we adults have.
Babies have twice as much REM, or active, sleep as adults. They also experience shorter NREM to REM cycles, with each one creating a period where the baby is vulnerable to waking up. Quite simply, your baby wakes up a lot and moves in his sleep a lot.
For an adult, a healthy sleep pattern features deep sleep – non-rapid-eye movement (NREM) sleep – at the beginning of the night. When we first fall asleep, that deep sleep manifests as shallow breathing, relaxed muscles, and very little, if any movement.
Then, NREM sleep alternates with rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep every couple of hours. In fact, people whose bodies do not correctly shift between REM and NREM sleep can experience sleep paralysis because their bodies are receiving signals not to move. During REM sleep, people twitch, move, dream, and rollover. The majority of adult sleep is NREM sleep, at least ideally.
Why do babies move so much in their sleep?
While baby sleep patterns may be very different from adults, a baby’s desire for comfort is exactly the same. Just as adults may wake up, flop around, and adjust blankets because they are too hot or too cold or their back hurts, so too may a baby adjust their body to seek comfort.
All of this is very normal, and likely even a function of survival. Should a baby spend most of their night in a deep, unmoving sleep, they may fail to clear their airway or cry for milk to express any other need they have.
These innate, instinctual reasons that babies move around during sleep time are the exact reasons why the tenets of safe sleep are so important. Sleep is vital to humans – adults and babies alike. The adult caregivers of a baby cannot spend the entire night watching them, but we can give them a safe space so that they will not be harmed by their antics.
Whether your baby wakes up in the corner, presses their face against the wall, or ends up sideways in the crib, it is all normal and unavoidable. Parents must instead focus on what they can control – the sleep environment – so that your baby can sleep their natural sleep.
If you remain concerned about your baby’s sleeping habits, take a video with your phone and show it to your pediatrician. Some actions and sounds can be a sign of something bigger going on, like acid reflux, but most likely, you just have a really active sleeper. Like all the other newborn phases that seem meant to kill parents, this too shall pass.
Baby moves around in crib while sleeping
When your baby engages in nighttime physical activity, there is usually a reason, either due to developmental state or simple discomfort.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons your baby might be wiggly at night:
Babies have immature nervous systems that over-respond or respond to things that a mature nervous system would not, and as a result, babies twitch and jerk in their sleep.
These can be simple things like little noises or light. For example, most adults do not wake up every time a car drives by their home during the night. Some researchers hypothesize that the twitches are a way for the baby’s body to connect brain signals to muscle movements for coordinated and intentional movement later on. For babies, this usually dissipates at 2 to 4 months of age.
Babies also frequently wake up throughout the night.
Their sleep cycles last about 40 minutes each, and at the end of each cycle, babies usually wake up for minutes. If parents are lucky, the babies soothe themselves back to sleep, but they may shift and adjust before doing so. Around 3-6 months, babies get better at connecting their sleep cycles.
Babies spend more time in active sleep.
Because babies spend most of their night in active REM sleep, they are capable of moving much more in the night than adults.
Should you reposition a sleeping baby
Babies should be put on their backs for sleep for their first year, but parents do not have to reposition the baby if they roll onto their stomach or side on their own.
If they have the strength to roll themselves, then they also have sufficient strength to keep their airways clear.
However, use common sense. If your baby rolls or otherwise maneuvers themselves into a position that inhibits their ability to breathe, move them. Or, if their new position looks like something that might leave them with a sore neck, go ahead and help them get more comfortable.
Baby always ends up sideways in the crib
As adults, we sleep top to bottom in the bed and probably can’t imagine doing it any other way, but our little ones are at least as likely to end up sideways.
Babies and toddlers have no sense of the “right” or “wrong” way to lie in bed and orienting ourselves in a certain direction is a learned behavior that they have not yet learned.
Additionally, babies lack the pillows and blankets that adults have to know where heads and feet go. Babies simply seek comfort and shift positions without the same goalposts to orient them as adults.
Why do babies rotate in bed?
Even when your baby is put to bed in one position, you’ll often find them in a different one each time you check-in.
Babies rotate in bed because they lack the awareness that their head ‘should’ be in one place or another.
This, in combination with night wakings and active sleep, leads to sleep that can utilize all corners of the crib.
Baby rotates in crib while swaddled
Swaddles can help calm babies and improve their sleep as they feel more secure.
Cease swaddling at the first signs your baby is trying to roll over; there is no way to know whether the first success will be while you are watching or while you are asleep and the baby is swallowed.
Swaddling becomes a danger when the baby has the ability to roll over while still swaddled because the baby may not be able to situate themselves safely once rolled over, and may instead suffocate against the mattress or with the swaddle, if they get it loose.
Baby always ends up in corner of the crib
Babies frequently work their way to the edges and corners of their cribs while sleeping. This too is perfectly normal.
Pressing their bodies against the walls of the crib may provide comfort much the same way as swaddling, and it is the only thing for them to snuggle against in a crib set up for safe sleeping.
Ending up in the corner of the crib is also the result of their active sleep patterns: babies keep wiggling until they meet a wall that provides resistance.
Baby sleeps with face against side of crib
There should be exceptionally little risk for a baby in a crib that meets AAP guidelines, regardless of what position they end up in.
AAP-approved crib mattresses are firm and closely fitted to the crib walls, making it very unlikely that a little nose or mouth will get stuck.
Bumpers are very dangerous for this reason.
A great way to reduce the concern about your baby traveling around the crib is to ensure the crib is a safe place to be.
Many safe sleep recommendations can make the crib safe regardless of what position your little one gets themself in:
- No bumpers – Bumpers create a soft, cushiony surface that babies can press their faces against and inhibit breathing. Small or swaddled babies may have trouble repositioning themselves for better breathing.
- No blankets or stuffed animals – As with bumpers, soft items in the crib can cause accidental suffocation. If there is nothing soft in the crib, there will be nothing to be concerned about regardless of the position your baby ends up in.
- Ensure the mattress is the correct size for the crib and firm – A mattress that leaves space between the mattress and walls of the crib can allow a baby to be trapped against the mattress and suffocate. Similarly, a soft mattress is a greater risk, especially for very young babies.