Ultradian and circadian rhythms of sleep-wake and food-intake behavior during early infancy

Chronobiol Int. 1999 Mar;16(2):129-48. doi: 10.3109/07420529909019081.


The early development of sleep-wake and food-intake rhythms in human infants is reviewed. The development of a 24 h day-night rhythm contains two observable developmental processes: the alterations in the periodic structure of behavior (decreased ultradian, increased circadian components) and the process of synchronization to external time (entrainment). The authors present the results of their studies involving 26 German children and compare them with previous investigations. In their research, it became evident that, during the first weeks of life, the time pattern of sleep-wake and food-intake behavior is characterized by different ultradian periodicities, ranging from 2 h to 8 h. In the course of further ontogenesis, the share of ultradian rhythms in the sleep-wake behavior decreases, while it remains dominant for food-intake behavior. The circadian component is established as early as the first weeks of life and increases in the months that follow. Besides, the authors' study supports the notion of broad interindividual variation in ultradian rhythms and in the development of a day-night rhythm. Examples of free-running rhythms of sleep-wake and food-intake behavior by various authors are strong indicators of the endogenous nature of the circadian rhythms in infants and show that the internal clock is already functioning at birth. It is still uncertain when the process of synchronization to external and social time cues begins and how differences in the maturation of perceptive organs affect the importance of time cues for the entrainment. Prepartally, the physiological maternal entrainment factors and mother-fetus interactions may be most important; during the first weeks of life, the social time cues gain importance, while light acts as a dominant "zeitgeber" at a later time only.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Activity Cycles*
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Sleep
  • Wakefulness