When Your Baby is Awake All Night

By Sara Curtis on March 09, 2011

Is your baby awake all night and asleep all day? Here’s how to reset the clock.

Having a newborn in the house will turn any parent’s life upside down – in some cases more literally than others.

Many new babies sleep for hours on end during the day and suddenly come to life when the sun goes down; great fun for the babe, but exhausting for mom and dad. He may have hinted at his nocturnal ways while in utero. Some sleep experts believe babies who are very active at night while in the womb tend to be the same way after they are born. An interesting bit of trivia, but it’s of little consolation to his sleep-deprived parents.

So what can you do if you’ve given birth to a little night owl?

Not much for the first few months, according to Dr. Shelly Weiss, director of the Neurology Sleep Clinic at SickKids Hospital in Toronto and author of Better Sleep for Your Baby and Child. “When babies are born, they don’t have a biological rhythm that is synchronized with day and night,” she says. “There are a lot of old wives’ tales about newborns who don’t sleep at night, and they usually imply that the parents are doing something wrong. That’s just not true. In general, babies do develop a circadian rhythm, but not until they are about three months old. So in those first 12 weeks, you have to go with the baby’s natural schedule.”

During that time, however, you can start to set the stage for day/night reversal. When you feed or change the baby at night time, keep the lights low and your movement slow and quiet. In the morning, open the curtains, play with the baby and don’t try to stifle general household noise; let the phone ring, the dishwasher run and the dog bark.

Between the age of three and six months parents can start to sleep train, says Dr. Weiss. The circadian rhythm is starting, but is not yet established. “At this point, consistency is really important. Stimulate them as much as you can during the day, and do not stimulate them at night.” At six months, you can move the baby out of your room (Dr. Weiss recommends keeping babies in a crib or bassinet in your room for the first six months) and sleep train more assertively: putting the baby down to sleep without nursing him every time, or rocking him but not nursing. But, says Dr. Weiss, you can’t sleep train if the baby is still feeding at night. “You have to be careful – you don’t want to discourage nutrition or breast feeding. But at six months, if the baby is doing well, gaining weight and thriving, they don’t need to feed at night. It is just a habit.” She suggests nursing for a shorter time each night, until the baby can get through the night without eating, which usually takes a few weeks.

If the baby still isn’t sleeping well at night, it’s all about maintaining a consistent schedule. “Make sure he naps at the same time every day, and goes to bed at the same time at night, even if he is with a caregiver or at daycare.” And persistence pays off, says Dr. Weiss. “Babies who don’t sleep well tend to have sleep issues later on, so it’s important to try to get it sorted out when they are infants.”

Tips for dealing with a night time baby

  • In the first few months, sleep when the baby sleeps. While you are trying to sort out his sleep schedule, you need to be rested.
  • Establish a wake-up time and stick to it. Even if the baby was up most of the night, resist the urge to let him sleep in. It will help to encourage better sleeping at night.
  • During the day, play with the baby as much as you can. Expose him to light, play lively music, talk and sing to him.
  • At night, keep his room dark, with just enough light to be able to change his diaper. Talk very quietly and move slowly. Try to avoid engaging the baby.
  • After the first 12 weeks, if he is still very active at night, don’t let him sleep for long stretches during the day. Wake him up for feedings.

Published in March 2011.

By Sara Curtis| March 09, 2011

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