When babies confuse night and day

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 Photo: Getty Images

When Candice Meisel had her first child, not only was she hit with the change of lifestyle that comes with becoming a parent, but she was also challenged with what many of us experience: a child who didn't know their day from night. 

"From around 1-2 weeks old my daughter was awake during the night and slept much better during the day," she says.

"It took around 8 weeks for her to adjust and my husband and I had to take turns in sleeping at the beginning of the evening."

Then the same thing happened with her subsequent two children.

"I learnt to rest and sleep in the day whenever I got the precious opportunity to do so," she explains. "The first time round I felt guilty sleeping in the day and used the time to do other things, but second and third time it was different."

Meisel followed all the expert advice in order to get through the upside-down period, such as walking in natural light so her baby knew it was daytime, not talking too loudly with the baby during the night, and always putting the babies in a very dark room at night to sleep.

"My biggest advice for anyone going through this is to sleep whenever you can in the day and outsource whatever you can to anyone who can help so that you can rest," she says.

"Just go with it, as hard as it is. It feels never ending but it will come right."

Midwife and child health nurse Karen Faulkner says that while babies do have a circadian rhythm in utero, it takes some time for this to develop outside - after all, they've been doing their own thing for 9 months now, so parents need to have realistic expectations. 

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Confusion of night and day starts from birth and can be exacerbated by round the clock feeding.

"A classic sign is when a parent finds that their baby is wanting to be wakeful and feed all night while being very drowsy and sleeping in the day," says Faulkner. 

"Add to this the fact that mum's hormones (that produce more milk, oxytocin and prolactin) are elevated at night, which encourages babies to feed frequently, and so this day-night confusion continues."

Faulkner says this confusion can last anywhere from six weeks to three months or, alternatively, until mum intervenes and decides that she needs to change her baby's pattern, or baby has gained enough weight to feel more satiated.

However, she advises that it may resume at regular growth spurts or 'wonder weeks' around 6 weeks, 3 months and so on, until 6-9 months.

So what are the best strategies for trying to manage this?

"It's a good idea to keep a feeding and sleeping diary to look at patterns and make sure your baby has enough feeds in the day so they're not feeding all night when you want them to sleep," advises Faulkner.

Faulkner adds that all babies need day naps to achieve good night sleep – so if your baby is awake all day it's not helpful for development or night sleep, and will have a big impact on effective feeding.

"When your baby is well rested they will feed more effectively, and the better they feed, the better they sleep," Faulkner says.

She also recommends implementing a bedtime routine around three months of age to help your baby wind down from their day and imprint that day-night transition.

"It takes around 7-10 days to change and imprint a new behaviour. 'Hump day' is days 3-4 where things can get challenging before they get better. This is very normal, and by day 5 your baby will be adapting much easier to the new rhythm of feeding and sleeping."

If at six weeks your baby is feeding well, thriving and gaining weight, Faulkner advises it's okay to gently start to change their pattern by doing the following.

  • Wake your baby after around 2 hours of daytime napping to encourage a rhythm to your day and regular feeding. This is not forcing a routine on your baby, but rather moulding behaviours to establish a positive day pattern.
  • Try a pattern of feed-play-sleep in the day, whereas at night follow a feed-sleep routine with no play.
  • Try having structure to your day, incorporating playtime and tummy time, which can help baby earn their sleep and become easier to settle.
  • Try and catch any sleep yourself in the day to cope with tricky nights, and accept any help offered.

Also remember that it's important to go at your baby's pace. Be respectful to their temperament and not force anything on them.