There's no sugarcoating it: the first two or three months after my twins were born in 2013 were among the absolute worst months of my life. Babies — especially newborn babies — are little squirming screaming balls of rage and incomprehension that demand unlimited patience and kindness, and in return offer little beyond soggy diapers and projectile vomiting.
Part of the reason babies are so unpleasant to deal with is that they don't know how to sleep. They haven't synced their internal clocks to the daily rhythms the rest of us use.
Recently an enterprising Australian Redditor going by the handle “andrew_elliott” had a new baby with his wife, and got the idea of quantifying the child's first few months of life using the Baby Connect iPhone app.
Using the app, he built a comprehensive database of his daughter's sleep and wake cycles for every single day of the first six months of her life. Being an industrial designer by trade he decided to take a crack at visualizing that data last month. The results, below, are stunningly beautiful. It’s the highest-ranked post of Reddit's data visualization forum, r/dataisbeautiful.
Using computer-assisted design software, Elliott drew the story of the dawn of his daughter's life, told in one continuous thread: a visualization representing six months of her sleep and wakefulness — dark blue for asleep, yellow for awake. The spiral begins at the interior of the circle, marking her birth. It then wraps outward as she gets older — each full revolution of the circle represents one 24-hour day, meaning that midnight is at the top of the “clock” and noon is at the bottom.
You can see chaos near the center of the circle, as the baby alternately woke and slept during the day, night, and everything in between. “It was terrible going through that stage,” Elliott recalled.
Shortly thereafter, however, you can see things start to sort themselves out. The upper right hand side of the circle, representing night time, begins to stay consistently dark blue. The rest of it turns mostly yellow, with dark blue streaks here and there representing naps.
Elliott told me that he and his wife (mostly his wife, if we're being honest) were assiduous about tracking the baby's sleep with the app. Plus, the baby had an unfortunate case of reflux, which meant that she had a hard time falling asleep laying down and hence was almost always in her parents' arms for naptime.
Elliott's experiment is an example of the general patterns in human sleep and wakefulness outlined in the illustration below, which comes from the neuroscience website “The Brain from Top to Bottom.”
Newborns alternate rapidly between sleep and wakefulness. As they get older, those sleep cycles begin to consolidate. By toddler age a child may get by on one or two naps a day. Heading into late childhood and early adulthood, naps tend to vanish altogether (for some of us at least).
Each newborn is different, of course, especially when it comes to sleep. Some, like Gwyneth Paltrow's perfect little angel, are sleeping through the night by 6 weeks of age. Others evidently never get the knack of it — not even by age 7.
Elliott's daughter seems to have not had too bad a run of it, all things considered. Elliott plans on using the pattern as the background for a clock that he'll put in her room.