In order to figure out what a newborn baby needs, we look for cues. Different moods, behaviors, and expressions can guide new parents in the right direction, but even the most attentive caregiver can miss a signal or misinterpret a need. That’s why it’s helpful to understand the six states of consciousness in newborns.
A newborn will move through these different states of consciousness multiple times throughout one day. How quickly or slowly he moves through this cycle will vary. These states of consciousness might appear to be sporadic and unpredictable at first. However, as his nervous system develops, you’ll notice a more stable pattern of sleeping, eating, alertness, and drowsiness. Eventually, it’ll become much easier to predict needs, set schedules, and create healthy routines.
6 States of Newborn Consciousness
Deep Sleep State
Deep sleep, also called the “quiet sleep” state, is when he is completely relaxed and sleeping soundly without movement. You may see him stir a little here and there, but overall, he’ll be unresponsive to outside noise. His eyelids will be still, his breathing will be deep, and there will be very little motor activity. In this state, his growth hormones become active.
Active Sleep State
The active or “light sleep” state is when you’ll notice some movement. Even though his eyes are closed, he’ll start to rotate or flutter his eyes. This is the REM (rapid eye movement) portion of his sleep. His breathing will be more shallow. He’ll be more receptive to outside noises and might thrust his arms and legs around if he hears something. In this active sleep state, he’ll make different facial expressions, funny noises with his mouth, or you might see him start to suck his thumb.
In the drowsy state of consciousness, you’ll see him yawning and his breathing will become more irregular. His eyes will be glassy or glazed over, unfocused, and they’ll open and shut more frequently. You may see him doze off and but become easily startled. His facial expressions can range from a frown, to a grimace, to a casual smile. This drowsy state is a sort of limbo state between alertness and sleepiness. He’ll enter a drowsy state when falling asleep or just waking up. Light stimulation, such as rocking him back and forth, can help ease him into a deep sleep or slowly wake him up.
Quiet Alert State
Being aware of the quiet alert state is key. This is the ideal time for learning. As the name suggests, he’ll be both quiet and alert at the same time. He’ll be wide awake and able to concentrate, but also calm and still. He’ll appear happy, peaceful, and focused. Take advantage of these moments! This quiet alert state is his way of giving you the green light that he’s ready for some interaction and stimulation.
Active Alert State
The active alert state is when you’ll see him showing off his motor skills. He’ll bounce, stretch, kick, and rotate his arms. He’ll make noises with his mouth, start breathing more irregularly and maybe dart his eyes around a room. The active alert state is often identified as a “fussy” period. A newborn entering this state could be a sign that he needs something, like a diaper change or food.
During the crying state, his movements will start to look more disorganized and chaotic than they were in the active alert state. He’ll flail his arms around, kick, scream, and show a variety of facial expressions. When a newborn enters a crying state, he’s expressing some form of discomfort, such as hunger, boredom, loneliness, or tiredness. This is a time to soothe, hold him close, and provide a sense of safety. He may refuse acts of comfort and express extreme irritability here, but it’s still important to be attentive and attempt to console him.
For more information on sleep, head over to our article on the role of sleep in baby and toddler development.