How to “Fix” Your Baby’s Day/Night Confusion

Is my baby a vampire? Of course not! But why, then, does she seem to come to life at night, when the entire rest of the civilized world is sleeping, and spend much of the day contentedly snoozing? Day/night confusion is actually fairly common among newborns, who aren’t that great at the whole sleep thing in general.

The “why” of day/night confusion isn’t too hard to understand, if you think about it. Your baby’s only just recently emerged from the dark and cozy chamber of the womb, where there were no cues to tell him what the difference is between night and day. His internal clock is not yet in tune with your family’s or the world’s.

As confounding and exhausting as a nighttime-alert baby can be, this phase does tend to resolve itself over time. As your little one begins sleeping in longer stretches, those stretches eventually tend to consolidate themselves more in the nighttime hours to “match” what’s going on in the family generally. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few things you can do to gently nudge your baby in the direction of longer night stretches of sleep, and more daytime alertness.

Keep an eye on daytime naps. 

You know the adage about letting sleeping babies lie? That’s mostly true, but if your infant is taking super long daytime naps (for example, if she routinely snoozes right through feedings), it could delay the day/night differentiation process. You know your baby’s feeding schedule best, so use that as your guide. The idea is not to keep her awake all day; she’s still far too young for that—it’s to “remind” her that daytime naps should generally be shorter than nighttime sleeps. To prompt her to wakefulness after a good nap, start gently. If she’s swaddled, unwrap her, stroke her face or hands, and/or hold her upright. Once she’s awake and fed, talk to her, sing to her, dangle toys—all to signal that it’s wakey-wakey time.

Make daytime exciting. 

Rise and shine! You know how the morning light is your body’s signal to wake up? The same works for your baby; daily doses of sunshine (weather permitting) help set your baby’s budding circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle). It’s not just light, but stimulation; your baby should see that daytime is when all the fun stuff happens. When your baby is ready for a nap, don’t fully darken the room, and resist keeping the whole house quiet. This doesn’t mean blasting music, but neither does it mean avoiding all disruption. Do chores, play with older children, and go about your normal routine. The presence of ordinary daytime sounds reinforces the difference between day and night.

Keep nights boring and dark. 

The opposite should happen at night—keep the nursery dark and hushed. When your baby wakes for feeding and changing, remain quiet and calm. Try to avoid flipping on a light (get by with a nightlight if you need it) and keep your voice low and soothing. This is especially important if your baby seems to want to “play” during nighttime feedings. Don’t ignore her, obviously, but don’t give her any impression other than “it’s nighttime now...shhhh…”

Finally, remember that no matter how your baby’s sleep time is apportioned—mostly in the day, mostly at night, or a combination of the two—the overall need for sleep remains the same, which is vital. A newborn needs at least 16 hours’ sleep out of 24. That means that even if you do manage to gradually shift more sleep hours to the nighttime, you’re still going to have stretches of daytime sleep, and some night hours that’ll be wakeful for you both, at least in the early weeks or months. Try to be zen about it and catch a few zzz’s yourself during the day.