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Caitlin Chartier’s three babies had a lot in common—they all walked early and hated peas. They also all struggled with day/night confusion (sometimes called day/night reversal), which is when a newborn’s sleep ratio overwhelmingly skews in such a way that they spend the bulk of their day sleeping and most of the night awake. In other words, they have have their days and nights mixed up. “I was up all night with all three babies,” says Chartier, who lives in Ottawa.
Wendy Hall, a UBC School of Nursing professor emeritus and expert in infant sleep, notes that what parents interpret as day/night confusion sometimes isn’t. After all, newborns sleep up to 80 percent of the day and usually feed every one to three hours around the clock. To parents accustomed to seven or eight hours of solid sleep, these frequent wake-ups can leave the impression that their baby is up all night.
Newborns also engage in “active sleep,” during which they may move, make noise or even open their eyes. Parents sometimes misinterpret these behaviours as their child being awake and then, while trying to comfort their fussing infant, wake up the baby, feeding the theory that their child doesn’t sleep at night.
Still, “babies aren’t born knowing day from night,” says Hall. They learn this as their biological clocks mature and their sleep-related hormones ramp up and stabilize. This means that, without intervention, most babies sort out their sleep patterns by about six months, though some can take longer. But there are ways to speed up the process a bit.
“Sunlight really does set the body’s internal program,” says Amanda Jewson, a Toronto-based sleep consultant and owner of Baby’s Best Sleep. Get your babe outside, ideally every day. If that’s not possible, set up your baby’s play area in a sunny spot by a window. When your baby is outside, protect them from the sun with a hat and a stroller shade, but note that babies don’t need to constantly wear sunglasses, says Hall, who adds that UV exposure is key to setting a circadian rhythm.
Some babies have their days and nights confused because of their eating schedule. “Your baby doesn’t care when she’s feeding,” says Hall. This means that if a baby takes epic naps during the day, they’ll make up for missed calories by eating more frequently at night. In this case, wake your baby every few hours during the day, feeding them and then providing some mild stimulation to keep them up for 45 minutes to an hour before letting them sleep again.
While you need to be flexible with newborns (and keep sleep expectations low), you can encourage good sleep habits by implementing a basic bedtime routine at around one month old—like a fresh diaper, pyjamas, feeding and cuddles. “Keep the external stimuli to a minimum,” says Jewson. This means a dark room, ideally with no visible blue light of any kind, such as from a sound machine or your smartphone. Practise this same low-stimuli approach through the night.
If you've heard of a folk remedy that says you can fix your baby's day/night confusion by flipping them head over heels, don't try it. Hall says she's never seen evidence that would support that approach, and that flipping a baby vigorously could cause injury.
At Chartier’s house, they followed their first-born’s backwards schedule at first, but at around five months, she’d had enough and introduced her baby to a bedtime routine, including a set bedtime, a bottle and a bath. It worked, and memories of too many sleepless nights caused Chartier to address her subsequent two children’s reversed sleep patterns sooner. Both kids were introduced to a bedtime routine similar to her first-born’s before they hit four months. And just like with her son, her younger two babes embraced the practice within weeks of implementation and began sleeping more during the nights. The routine did the trick, shifting her kids onto a normal sleep schedule within weeks of implementation.