How to teach your baby to tell night from day

Newborn babies don't know that night-time is for sleeping but there are simple ways you can help them learn

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Babies aren’t born with body clocks. They feed, then sleep, then feed, then sleep – at pretty regular intervals, round the clock, night or day. But, ever so gradually, they learn that night-time’s for sleeping (a bit more) and daytime’s for staying awake (a bit more) – and there are some easy ways you can help your baby learn all this a bit quicker.

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In fact, says baby-sleep expert Mandy Gurney, founder of Millpond Sleep Clinic, if you teach your baby that night-time is sleeping, by the time your baby is 1 month old, you could both be getting 3 to 4 more hours sleep at night. Hurrah!

What is a typical newborn sleep pattern?

Newborns sleep a lot: around 16 or 17 hours a day, with each sleep session lasting between 2 and 4 hours. Which means that, while they’re getting lots of sleep, it’s all in short batches and you’re up and down like a yo yo – day and night.

Why do newborn sleep in such short snatches, whether it’s day or night?

Newborns have come from a dark and cosy womb, where anytime is nap time. They have no idea that, in this brand new world they’ve been born into, night-time is for sleeping and daytime is when we’re all awake.

“For the first few weeks, there’s likely to be very little pattern to your baby’s sleep,” says Mandy Gurney. “And your baby will have no understanding of night and day.”

Gradually, your baby will develop his or her own circadian rhythm (internal body clock), influenced by exposure to daylight. And he or she will start sleeping for longer a night and staying awake longer during the day. This takes a bit of time, and is made more complicated by the fact that babies have very small stomachs, so need to feed very frequently.

So, how do I help my baby differentiate between night and day?

It’s all about making night and day very different experiences for your baby. If, say Mandy, you “immerse your baby in the hustle and bustle of normal life”, you help your baby understand that nighttime is for being quiet, and daytime is when we chat and see people and visit places. “Spend plenty of time interacting with and stimulating your baby during the day,” she says. “And, to help set up his or her body clock, take your baby outside for fresh air and daylight every day.”

And, if you do this, says Mandy, the results can be pretty impressive. By the age of 1 month, most babies are sleeping for about 6 or 7 hours during the day and 8 or 9 hours a night. “But,” says Mandy, “by 3 months, a baby who has been taught that night-time is for sleeping is likely to sleep 10 to 11 hours at night and around 4 hours in the day.”

The 4 best tactics for teaching a baby to tell night from day

Tiny babies

  1. Go outside during the day. We adults need exposure to natural light during the day to regulate our body clocks and help us sleep at night – and babies are no exception.
    Indeed, a 2004 study at Liverpool John Moores University showed that babies who were exposed to daylight between 12pm and 4pm slept better at night that babies who weren’t.
    Try to take your baby outside at least once a day to get some sunlight and fresh air. On days when that doesn’t feel manageable (and we all have those!), open the windows and get some natural daylight into your home.
  2. Be noisy by day, boring by night: During the day, keep the radio on, and don’t lower your voice during nap times. Whenever your baby is awake and alert in the daytime, talk and play with her.
    At night, use blackout blinds (especially useful in the summer) and make sure it’s quiet and calming. “During night feeds, avoid stimulating your baby,” says Mandy. “Keep your voice low and make minimal eye contact. Only change his nappy if it’s really necessary. Combined with the soporific effects of darkness and warmth, this will eventually help your baby to learn that night time is for sleeping.”
  3. Get ready for bed: Mark the start of ‘night-time’ in your house by doing the same thing at the same time – establishing a little routine.
    “A bedtime routine should start with a short, warm bath, which will help stimulate the sleep hormone melatonin,” says Mandy. “After the bath, wrap your baby in a towel and take them straight to the bedroom, where the lights should be dimmed. Dress him for ‘bed’ with minimal stimulation. Although your baby won’t appreciate the difference between night-wear and day-wear, he will understand the routine of being put into fresh clothes before bed. Stick to the same routine every night and you’ll help your baby understand that a bath and being quietly dressed means it’s nearly time for night-time sleep.”
  4. Respond to sleep cues when you see them: “Your baby will find it much easier to fall asleep if you are able to respond to his early sleep cues,” says Mandy. “The very first sign that your baby is in need of sleep is being quiet and still after a period of wakefulness. If you miss this cue, then he may move on to rub his eyes, yawn, cry and become fractious – making sleep harder or longer to achieve.

Will my baby sleep longer at night if I keep her awake during the day?

No. It can be tempting to keep your baby up all day, so they’ll sleep all night but baby logic (if there is any) doesn’t work like that. Keeping your baby awake will exhaust her (and you) and actually make it harder for her to sleep at night.

For the first 6 to 8 weeks of their life, babies struggle to stay awake for longer than 2 hours. And, if you wait too long to put your baby down for a nap, she may become overtired, fractious, and find it difficult to go to sleep.

What’s key here is to make daytime naps different from night-time sleeps, Mandy says. “Put your baby in his Moses basket or cot, but leave the curtains open and don’t try to minimise noise. By contrast, at night, make the room dark.”

By the end of the first month, a napping pattern typically emerges with babies needing a nap every 1.5 to 2 hrs. It’s worth keeping a diary of your baby’s feed and sleep times, so you can spot a pattern beginning to emerge.”

When will my baby sleep through the night?

Experts say that babies are capable of sleeping for an 8 to 12 hour stretch by about 6 months old. We’d put the emphasis on word ‘capable’ with this one – because, although they may be capable of sleeping that long by then, we know plenty of 6 months old who absolutely don’t.

Saying that, if you lay the groundwork for distinguishing night from day, you’ll definitely help your baby sleep better at night – even if it’s not for quite as long as you really wish.

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