Dacia Carney vividly remembers driving her newborn son Evan around the quiet streets of her neighbourhood in the wee hours, trying to get him to sleep. Evan had his days and nights mixed up, snoozing for stretches during the day, but wide-eyed and ready for fun at night. The Calgary mom was exhausted from her newborn's sleep patterns.
According to Burlington, Ont., paediatric sleep consultant Alanna McGinn, day-night confusion happens because newborns have yet to develop their internal rhythms. “These clocks drive our circadian rhythms and create an internal timing mechanism that makes us more awake during the day and more tired at night,” she explains. “Parents tend to have unrealistic expectations that a newborn baby can adjust to their new world too quickly, after spending nine months in relative darkness. They’re just not developmentally ready.”
In fact, Leigh Anne Newhook, a paediatrician in St. John’s, Nfld., says that for the first six to eight weeks, many, even most, newborns have their days and nights mixed up. Around-the-clock feedings also play a big role in this, since little ones have a high biological need to eat, and their tiny tummies empty quickly. Newhook adds that a new mom’s oxytocin and prolactin levels are elevated at night, which means she produces more milk, encouraging babies to feed frequently.
So what can sleep-deprived parents do, aside from waiting it out? McGinn suggests that you send your child environmental and social cues throughout the day and night. “Keep your infant exposed to sunlight and everyday noises during the day, even while she sleeps; at night, turn the lights low and keep your interactions quiet,” she says. “Nighttime feeds and soothing should be brief and boring.”
You could also try keeping a log of your baby’s sleep habits. At the newborn stage, babies should be sleeping between 16 and 18 hours per 24-hour period, though they wake often. A log may help you discern some newborn sleep patterns you didn’t recognize before, so you can get some rest.
What not to do? Keep your baby awake all day, thinking it will make her sleep better at night. It sounds good in theory, but this tactic backfires on babies, who get cranky and harder to soothe, and actually sleep less at night, than babies who nap regularly. McGinn recommends you pay close attention to sleep cues, including drowsy eyes, yawning and fussiness; they’re how your baby communicates that she’s ready to go back to sleep, even if she hasn’t been awake for very long. By acting on early signs of sleepiness—before she gets overtired and overstimulated—you’ll help your baby fall asleep more easily and sleep more soundly.
“It can be worrying for parents if it’s their first child and they haven’t been told that this pattern is something that they should expect,” says Newhook. “They might think that there is something wrong with their baby, when in fact, the baby is exhibiting completely normal behaviour.”
It may be a while until your little one sleeps through the night, but according to Newhook, most babies have their days and nights sorted out by about three months, and are sleeping for longer stretches at night. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to nap during the day, so you can manage the night shift. The impulse to get things done during the day is a strong one, but a bit of downtime is more valuable than a clear counter. Reach out for help from friends or family, who would probably love to snuggle your newborn while you get some rest. It might seem counter-intuitive, but resist the urge to keep yourself awake with caffeine during the day; when you get a chance to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” you want to be able to take advantage.