Do Babies Know the Difference Between Day and Night?

You’ve brought your new baby home, lovingly gazed at them while they snoozed all afternoon and got ready for a night of sweet snuggles and the famous “milk coma”. Your baby has other ideas though and, just as you are about to drift off, wakes up for an all night party!

What on earth is going on?

Before your baby was born they probably fell into a pattern, a routine where they would sleep at certain times of day and predictably wake up at other times. You may well have kept an eye out for those patterns, letting your midwife know if anything changed. Many mums find that they rock their baby to sleep as they move about during the day, then baby wakes for a good wriggle and kick when mum lies down to sleep and the rocking stops. After your baby is born it’s normal for them to continue with that pattern, after all they don’t know any different and it takes time to change. It’s a bit like baby jetlag, they are just used to different timings.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help.

You won’t have them sleeping all night straight away, but you can aim to have the longest sleeps happen at night with brief wakings to feed before going back to bed, while daytime is the time for shorter naps and play as well as feeds.

The first thing to do is decide what time actually counts as “day” or “night” for your family. Usually night is an 11 or 12 hour stretch and 7-7 is very common, although if 6-6 or 8-8 suits your family better then you can go with that. Plan to have a routine to mark the transition between day and night, it could be as elaborate as a bath, massage, song and story or as simple as changing into a clean babygrow and closing the bedroom curtains. It may not mean much to your baby just yet but soon she will come to associate those things with bedtime. You can have a simple morning routine as well, to signal the start of the day. Perhaps opening the curtains, getting dressed and watching the morning news while your baby plays on their mat.

During the day you have two main aims:

You want to make sure your baby is getting enough milk, so that they won’t be too hungry at night, and that they have enough awake time that they can sleep at night. Of course they will need to sleep during the day, possibly quite a lot, so this isn’t about keeping them awake for hours or dropping naps. It’s more a case of avoiding the situation where a baby sleeps for six hours straight in the day, and misses a feed to do it, then has to have an extra feed at night to catch up. Aim to wake your baby to feed every three or four hours, if they haven’t asked for milk before that. That way when they are ready to sleep for longer stretches it will happen at night.

You can also help your baby by making day and night as different as possible:

During the day try not to hide away in the nursery, bring your baby into the family rooms where there’s noise and bustle even if it’s just the radio on in the corner and people walking past the window. If you prefer to feed your baby in the nursery because you have a comfortable chair there, consider moving it to the livingroom, or even getting a second. Make sure the curtains are open to let in lots of natural light, getting outside for a walk helps too if you can. Finally, aim to have a little playtime with your baby after each feed, even if its just singing nursery rhymes or playing peek a boo.

At night you want to keep everything as dark and quiet as possible, aiming to get back to sleep as soon as your baby has fed and is comfortable. Don’t turn on lights or the TV, just the dimmest nightlight you can find (ideally with a red bulb) and while you will obviously look and smile at your baby, keep your interactions calm and quiet – no stimulating games or toys. It also helps if you can stay in your bedroom or the nursery, take any bottles and other supplies with you when you go to bed, and only change your baby’s nappy if it’s dirty.

When you make a clear difference between night and day, and wake them for regular daytime feeds, you should find that your baby adjusts quite quickly. Even the most nocturnal baby that I’ve worked with started sleeping better at night by the end of the first week.

Martina The Maternity Nurse