Sleep Wellbeing

Stages of sleep: how they work & how to improve

sleep cycles
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Have you ever wondered how stages of sleep work? For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the process of sleep and sleep stages.  I mean what happens to us when we drift off to the land of nod?  What happens to our mind and why does time go so quickly when you are sleeping?  These are just some of the many questions that would stop me from getting to sleep! 

Did you know that scientists used to think that during sleep our brains would go in to a sort of shutdown mode and it would stsay in this state until we waken?  Well, after further research it is believed that sleep is certainly a lot more complicated and our brains don’t just go in to a shutdown mode, rather it goes through several different stages of activity.  It happens in two distinctive and predictible patterns, one is Non-Rapid Eye Movement or NREM and the other is Rapid Eye Movement which is REM sleep. 

Check out what happens in your body during these stages of sleep:

Stages of sleep 1:  As soon as we enter sleep (which let’s face it some nights I’m out like a light, others not so much!) your brain produces waves called apha and theta.  Your eye movement also slows right down.  This is the first stage of sleep and strangely it lasts less than 10 minutes.  This is the light sleep phase so you can certainly be wakened very easily at anytime during this stage.  If you have ever nodded off on the train this is the stage you would be in as it’s a brief nap. 

Stages of sleep 2: This second stage is also another form of light sleep, it is during this time that your brain increases its brain wave frequency.  This process is known as sleep spindles.  They are called that because of what they look like when they are printed out from an EEG reading.

Stages of sleep 3 & 4: Now we are entering deep sleep.  Your body won’t be experiencing any movement and there will be no eye movement at this stage.  You are more relaxed and you probably won’t react to your partner coming to bed or hear the toilet flushing!  If someone were to try and waken you at this stage, they would have a job!  At this stage too your brain will be producing more delta waves as you move in to what is known as the restorative stage of sleep.  The reason we instilled in our boys the importance of enough sleep is because at this stage of sleep your body can repair muscles, tissues, it also stimulates growth and development.  It is also the ideal stage to boost your immune system and gets your energy ready for the day ahead.  I am still amazed that sleep can do all those things, it really does help repair the body itself and sets us up for a great day ahead.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Stage of Sleep: It is amazing watching REM sleep.  This normally happens when you are about 90 minutes in to your sleep.  Each REM stage can last up to an hour.  Did you know the average adult hs about six cycles of REM sleep each night?  This is the stage that dreaming normally occurs.  This stage is also important as it allows the brain to process the information from what happened during your day.  So it does play a role in your memory and learning part of your brain.  During this phase your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing becomes fast, irregular, and shallow too.

I would like to point out that the above is based on adults.  It is so different to toddlers, teenagers and even the elderly.  However, there will still be the different stages of sleep.  For example toddlers will spend about 50% of sleep in REM while adults spend over half in stage 2.  While older people will spend less time in REM. 

With my Fitbit I’m able to track my sleep patterns. I’ve put a screen shot below to show you.  I have to say I was amazed at this and how many times I turn round and waken up! 

Fascinating insight to my sleep patterns and sleep cycles.  Still can’t believe how long it says I’m awake for during the night!

How to improve the quality of your sleep stages

As I’m mentioned above as each person is unique then each sleep cycle will be unique to you however there is one thing that research has told us and that is non-REM sleep happens during the first part of the night while REM happens in the second part of your sleep cycle.  Research also suggests that the amount of time you will spend in each stage depends on your age.  

How to change your sleep patterns to get a good night’s sleep

Good quality sleep is a must as it sets you up for the day ahead, after a great night’s sleep you are feeling more refreshed, energised and alert ready to face the day.  Getting the right number of hours sleep and the best quality sleep is therefore important.  Below I’ve listed a few things that you can do to ensure the quality of your sleep is as good as it can be.

Reaching a state of deep sleep

Deep sleep – which accounts for about 20 per cent of our total sleep – is said to be extremely beneficial for both our mental and physical health as REM is important to our memory function.  Unfortunately women are very prone to often missing out on deep sleep for a variety of reasons.  Including in our caring roles as mothers etc.  However, there are other things that can contribute to us not entering deep sleep are stress, alcohol, a hot bedroom, uncomfortable mattress and even a partner who snores!

If you want to ensure you reach deep sleep, head over to my blog post on ways to create a relaxing adult bedtime routine.

Importance of a routine to reach end of sleep cycles

It is very beneficial to reach the end of your sleep cycles to ensure you are ready for the day ahead.  A great way of doing this is to create a relaxing adult bedtime routine and setting the right mood and circumstances to go through all the cycles of sleep.  

Below I’ve also noted some ways that can help you get all the sleep cycles your body needs.

 Meditation is a great way to unwind before bed.  You could also listen to relaxing sounds.  Whatever you do as long as it relaxes your mind and body.

Winding down time

With social media and our cell phones we can be switched on 24 hours a day.  That isn’t good for our mind, our bodies and our sleep patterns.  Start to wind won at least an hour before going to bed.  It can be so beneficial having a positive pre-sleep routine. 

Dark bedroom

Did you know that the dark actually stimulates the production of melatonin which stimulates sleep.  So that really does mean switching off all electronic devices from cells to tablets. I would highly recommend black-out curtains to stop that sunshine getting through at night time.  Although I find it so difficult getting up in the winter when it is dark.  My body thinks it should still be sleeping!

Screen free bedroom

The light from your electronic devices keeps you awake – this has been scientifically proven.  It really can disturb your sleep.  I have to say the alarm sensor in our bedroom also keeps me awake at times so I’m considering putting tape over it so it doesn’t disturb me in the future.  Try your best to limit the devices in the bedroom or commit to having a screen free bedroom.  

Stress free activities

I often take a bath at night and add a few drops of lavender oil to help me relax.  It starts getting my body and mind in to a relaxed state ready for bed.  Another thing you could do is meditation or reading.  Something relaxing is always a great start to your bedtime routine.  Just don’t do something that will stimulate your mind – remember you are starting to unwind and getting ready for bed.


Your body loves routine and to ensure it gets through all the stages of sleep you should aim to go to the bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.  This will ensure that your body and mind has the space to go through all the stages of sleep each day and night.  

This can be tricky if you plan on going out or you really do want to watch the end of that gripping film!  In that case try your best to keep your waking time the same, your body will work out the sleep cycles itself and you should still awaken at the end of your REM sleep. 

The problem with trying to catch up on sleep

Sadly if we try and catch up on lost sleep – especially at weekends – it impacts upon our body clock and can even make us feel worse!  Experts suggest we get up at the same time at the weekend.  I have to admit I have not managed this yet, I just love getting an extra hour in bed on Saturdays and Sundays.   

Stay away from that snooze button!  It really isn’t worth it for an extra 10 mins versus a day of being groggy!

Don’t hit that snooze button

Our body and mind are so clever.  Your body starts to get ready for wakening up at least an hour before you do so – without any effort from us.  The changes include your sleep becoming lighter, your temperature increases and cortisol is released to get your body ready for getting up and getting on with your day.  However, if you waken up and hit that snooze button your body may take you in to a deep sleep.  This messes up your sleep cycles so you could end up feeling worse.  For me, hitting the snooze just isn’t worth it as I often waken up groggy and feeling in an awful mood.  This doesn’t set me up for a great day I have to say.  

I do though often take my time getting out of bed.  I also take my time before I walk to the bathroom by putting my feet on the ground, sitting on the bed, wiggling my toes and counting to ten.  This gets my body used to being up and gets it ready to start hustling for the day ahead.

 Power naps are great for recharging your batteries.  Where you have them really is what to you!

The power of power naps

Power naps are great if you feel you are lacking sleep.  There are times when I just need to lie down and rest.  I often aim for 30 minutes as this is the time I can get up and feel refreshed but some experts suggest a full 90 minutes as this allows your body to go through a full sleep cycle.  I guess it really does depend on how much time you have and how much you need.  I would suggest giving it a go and seeing what works best for you.

These are just some suggestions on how to improve your sleep cycles and what they all mean.  I am so fascinated by the whole sleep thing which is why I started this site.  I do hope that this information has proved useful to you and that you can now get a great understanding of your own sleep patterns and some ideas of how to make the best of them.

Happy dreaming folks. 

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Stages of Sleep contain four stages: 1, 2, 3, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  Find out how they work and how to improve their quality. #sleep
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