Why Is Baby Eye Rolling and Rapid Breathing While Sleeping?

| Reviewed By Sarah Schulze, MSN, APRN, CPNP

During sleep, it is commonly considered normal to have eye rolling and rapid breathing occur.

Rapid eye movement is a phase of sleep accompanied by low muscle tone and vivid dreams.

Breathing rate may increase and become irregular or slower during this time as well.

A study done by researchers at Tel Aviv University recently found that:

“Each flick of the eye that occurs during REM sleep accompanies the introduction of a new image in our dream, with the movement essentially acting like a reset function between individual dream ‘snapshots’.”

While eye rolling or rapid breathing can signal bigger problems in some cases, both of these behaviors are usually just a normal part of baby sleep and development.

Newborn Rolling Eyes While Sleeping

Your baby is going to be moving through two types of sleep during naps and bedtime: quiet sleep and active sleep. They work exactly as they sound.

What To Expect

During quiet sleep, your baby will simply rest without moving much.

Breathing will be slower and more regular, and she probably won’t open or move her eyes much.

This sleep takes up approximately half of your baby’s sleep time.

During active rapid eye movement sleep, also known as REM sleep, expect to see a lot of eye movement.

Your baby’s eyelids may flutter, her eyes may roll, and her little body will twitch at unexpected times. Breathing becomes more rapid and irregular.

As a new mom, I was alarmed when I first saw my baby’s eyes rolling during sleep, but after spending hours watching her and having a talk with her pediatrician, it was clear that she was simply sleeping and dreaming.

Causes

All of us roll our eyes and move our eyelids when we are in REM sleep. It’s a normal process as we move between quiet and active sleep.

Eye rolling might seem especially noticeable in newborns due to their immature eye muscles, but it’s not a cause for concern most of the time.

When To Worry

If your baby’s eye movement is accompanied by other symptoms, you need to seek medical help.

A child may roll his eyes to the back of his head when having a seizure, and seizures are usually accompanied by fever, stiff limbs, and unconsciousness.

Since babies can have seizures in their sleep, seek medical help if your child exhibits these symptoms.

Newborn REM Sleep or Seizure

It can be hard to tell the difference between normal REM sleep behavior and a seizure.

If your child is still rolling their eyes or stiffening their body once they are awake, this could be a sign that you need to see a doctor.

Movements that you see during active sleep should not carry over to when your child is awake.

Rapid Breathing During Sleep in Babies

Few things are as alarming as your baby having labored breathing patterns.

However, rapid breathing can happen when a child is in REM sleep, and it’s not usually a sign of anything being wrong with your child.

Irregular breathing patterns during sleep and while awake are normal during infancy as your child’s lungs develop. 

What To Expect

When your child is in a quiet sleep phase, you will notice steady breathing patterns.

However, when your child enters REM sleep, she may breathe rapidly or even stop breathing for several seconds before starting again.

This cycle is weird to watch, but it’s normal.

Causes

Your child will cycle through different stages of sleep all night, and it’s normal for active sleep to look, well, active.

Your child may not breathe for several seconds and then breathe rapidly for several seconds before continuing the cycle.

By the time your child is 6 months old, this will likely not happen as often.

When To Worry

If your child is having trouble breathing and the skin around her ribs looks like it’s catching as she gasps, you need to seek help.

Other signs of a problem include the skin around your child’s lips turning blue, refusal to eat, and extreme crankiness.

Newborn Eye Rolling and Smiling

When your newborn smiles at you while eye rolling during their sleep, it’s likely just muscle twitches, which are normal.

There is also a theory that your child may be passing gas when you see that mischievous grin.

A mother holding her naked, sleeping, smiling baby on her chest.

Stages of Infant Sleep

The stages of infant sleep are typically categorized into two main types: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep.

An infant spends about 50% of their sleeping time in active sleep, or REM sleep. 

During REM sleep, infants may exhibit rapid eye movements, irregular breathing, and increased brain activity. 

This is the stage where dreaming occurs, and it’s thought to be important for brain development.

The other half of infant sleep is spent in quiet sleep, also referred to as non-REM sleep.

During non-REM sleep, activity generally ceases, and breathing is regular. 

Non-REM sleep is further divided into several stages (N1, N2, and N3).

During these stages, there is a gradual decrease in body movement and a more regular pattern of breathing.

  • N1 (Light Sleep): The transition from wakefulness to sleep, lasting a few minutes. Muscle tone decreases, and the baby may startle easily.
  • N2 (Intermediate Sleep): A slightly deeper stage, where heart rate and body temperature decrease, and brief awakenings may occur.
  • N3 (Deep Sleep): The deepest stage of non-REM sleep, characterized by slow, rhythmic breathing and limited muscle activity. This stage is important for physical growth and repair.

Know that newborns and infants have shorter sleep cycles than adults, typically ranging from 50 to 60 minutes.

As they grow, the length of sleep cycles increases. 

Newborns also spend a significant amount of time in REM sleep, which decreases as they get older.

Newborn Sleep Patterns Week by Week

The first eight weeks with a newborn are wonderful and difficult.

They will sleep for many hours, but they wake up so much during the night that you don’t always feel like they’re getting rest. 

  • Week 1: Expect your baby to sleep from 16-18 hours a day during the first week of life. However, don’t expect her to sleep for more than 2-3 hours in a row. Your baby will need to wake up to eat often, and she still won’t be following a circadian cycle like you do. 
  • Week 2: Week two will likely look the same as week one. Expect 16-18 hours of sleep spread out throughout the day and night. Your baby will likely wake you up often at night to eat. If she doesn’t, you need to wake her up every three hours so she gets enough food.
  • Week 3: The norm is around 14-17 hours of sleep a day with many naps and interrupted night sleeping.
  • Week 4: While your baby is still sleeping a lot, she may be demanding more food as well. Growth spurts will mean extra feedings.
  • Week 5: You made it past the month mark, and your baby is still sleeping a ton. Hopefully, you are getting into a normal resting pattern as well.
  • Week 6: Your little one may be able to sleep longer between feedings, adding an hour or so to their nighttime rest before waking.
  • Week 7: Week seven looks a lot like week six. Your baby will sleep and eat most of her day.
  • Week 8: By week eight, your baby may be able to go for 4 full hours without waking up. This means more rest for you and a more consistent pattern to plan around, at least until sleep regression starts.

Baby Sleep Pattern

Every baby is different, but you will likely notice a pattern to your child’s sleep.

Your child will need to wake up every 2-3 hours to eat at night, and they will likely nap a lot during the day when they are very little.

As your child grows and can hold more food at one time, you will notice that they wake up less frequently at night.

However, sleep regression due to teething or growth spurts can interrupt even the most predictable sleep schedule.

Infographic showing baby sleep patterns