Baby States of Alertness and Their Effect on Sleep

“My 1-month-old is so much fun to watch,” said Britta. “Bobby’s little lip quivers when he’s upset. He’s clearly trying to hold back the flood of tears, and he can go a long time making a silly meow-type cry before he loses the battle and goes ballistic.”

If temperament is the sea your little one sails on, state control tells you how steady (or jumpy) his boat is. Can your little one stay asleep despite mild hunger and jarring noise? Does his fussing always lead to an escalating upset, or can he usually settle down from crying…all by himself?

These are signs of your baby’s state control, or states of alertness.

In this context, the word state refers to a baby’s level of alertness (not to whether he lives in Maine or Alabama). Your baby spends the day moving between six states of gradually increasing awakeness and vigor: deep sleep, light sleep, drowsiness, quiet alertness, fussiness, and screaming. Smoothly controlling these (not jumping from one to another) is one of his brain’s first big jobs.

(Notice that right in the middle of the six is quiet alertness. In this magical state your baby’s eyes will be bright and open and his face will be relaxed as he thoughtfully studies the sights all around him.)

Good “self-calmers” gracefully shift between sleep and alertness and are surprisingly good at gearing down from fussing to quiet…all on their own. And when the world gets too wild, they have an uncanny ability to protect themselves from getting overwhelmed: They stare into space, look away (as we do at a scary movie), or simply retreat into sleep.

How Good State Control Helps Babies Stay Asleep

This little experiment shows how your baby’s state control is the secret to his amazing “sleep anywhere, anytime” ability.

Get a flashlight and tiptoe in while your baby is sleeping. Shine the light right on his closed eyes for one to two seconds. He’ll probably tighten his closed eyes, stir a bit, and breathe faster (or maybe even startle).

Wait a few seconds to allow him to settle back into sleep then shine the light on his eyes again. He’ll probably react as before, or a little less.

Repeat this a few times and you’ll see something very interesting: After three or four flashes, his responses will lessen greatly, and after three or four more, he may have no reaction at all. That’s a sign that his state control is protecting him by stopping his brain from paying attention to the light!

Clearly, your baby’s brain doesn’t “shut off” during sleep. It’s still working, doing its best to ignore disturbances. Many of the tricks you’ll learn on our website are designed to boost state control and help your baby tune out distractions and stay settled in peaceful sleep.

Why Babies with Poor Control Over Their States of Alertness Need More Help Sleeping

On the other hand, some babies (including preemies or those born to drug users) have unsteady, immature state control. They startle a lot, and they have trouble screening out even the normal commotions. Their shrieks are often their way of begging for help: “Please…pick me up…the world is too big!”

For decades, smart nurses have known that these babies desperately need swaddling, shushing and rocking. Infants with poor state control depend on us to keep their calming reflex turned on until they get old enough to settle their crying jags on their own.

State control also explains one more mystery: why many babies cry more around dinnertime (the so-called witching hour). Late in the day, babies with shaky state control just can’t “keep it together” after a full day of exciting activity (and far too little soothing holding, rocking and sucking). Their ability to keep their boat steady gets overwhelmed, and they just disintegrate into tearful, flailing little furies.

The Bottom Line on a Baby States of Alertness

Don’t worry if your baby has poor state control; he’ll grow out of it. But it does mean that you as a parent might need to work harder to calm him and get him to sleep. Fortunately, the 5 S’s (or SNOO) will help even the most jittery baby become a sound sleeper.

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.