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

day night confusion

Is my baby a vampire? Of course not! But why, then, do they 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? The answer is simple: Day/night confusion.

Day/night confusion is actually fairly common among newborns, who aren’t that great at the whole sleep thing in general. Thankfully, there are things you can do to help your little one get on a more “normal” sleep schedule.

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the steps you can take to “fix” your baby’s day/night confusion.

Table Of Contents

The What And Why Of Day/Night Confusion

baby up in crib

What Is Day/Night Confusion?

Day/night confusion is an imbalance in your little one’s underdeveloped circadian rhythms. That basically means that their body clock — the natural process that signals when it’s time to sleep — hasn’t set itself yet.

Such an imbalance may cause your little one to sleep for the majority of the day and then be more awake at night.

They may nap for three or four hours during the day, wake to feed, and then go back to sleep for another long stretch. And, while that sounds normal, they may then be more awake during the nighttime hours — sleeping for only one or two hours and feeding a lot.

Why Does Day/Night Confusion Occur?

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 them what the difference is between night and day. Their 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.

How To “Fix” Day/Night Confusion

baby with day night confusion

1) 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 (e.g. if they routinely snooze 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 isn’t to keep your little one awake all day; they’re still far too young for that. The idea is to “remind” them that daytime naps should generally be shorter than nighttime sleeps.

To prompt them to wakefulness after a good nap, start gently. If they’re swaddled, unwrap them, stroke their face or hands, or hold them upright. Once they’re awake and fed, talk to them, sing to them, dangle toys — all to signal that it’s wakey-wakey time.

2) 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.

3) 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 them, obviously, but don’t give them any impression other than, “It’s nighttime now...shhhh…”

4) Expose Your Baby To Natural Light During The Day

Expose Your Baby To Natural Light During The Day

As we mentioned earlier, day/night confusion is an imbalance in your little one’s internal clock. They’ve literally been in the dark for the past nine months so their body may be a bit confused about when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be awake.

One of the biggest influences on circadian rhythms is sunlight. When the sun is up, the human body naturally increases hormone production, body temperature, and digestion to promote wakefulness and activity.

To help reset your newborn’s internal clock and overcome day/night confusion, expose them to as much natural light as possible during the day.

The best way to do that is to:

  • Open the curtains and blinds throughout the house (and keep them open)
  • Put the bassinet, bouncy chair, or sleep mat near the window and let them play/doze there (but avoid prolonged direct and intense sunlight)
  • Take your little one for a long walk outdoors

Exposing your newborn to natural light doesn’t mean you have to dress them any differently or that you should neglect proper sun protection.

It just means keeping their environment as light as possible while the sun is up so that their body gets used to being more awake.

5) Don’t Sleep In

Mom soothing baby

The last thing you want to do after a sleepless night with your little one is get up early. But to overcome your baby’s day/night confusion, do your best not to sleep in.

At such a young age, your little one relies on you to provide the external cues that signal the difference between day and night. So, if your newborn’s sleeping habits are off, do your best to retrain them.

Try to start your day — and your newborn’s day — by 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. (even on weekends). Doing so helps reinforce the habit of being awake during the daylight hours and asleep during the night hours.

Starting the day early also gives your newborn plenty of time to have a full day’s worth of activity before bedtime so that they’re ready to sleep for longer chunks of time.

This may be one of the hardest things you’ll have to do, but the results will be well worth the effort.

6) Encourage Full Feedings

Does your baby wake up after a relatively short nap, eat just a little bit, and then go right back to sleep? That can be a signal of day/night confusion.

Newborns who’ve been up all night may be more likely to snack — eat just enough to take the edge off their hunger — and then go right back to sleep because they’re tired from being awake for longer stretches at night.

Full feedings during the day are important because they:

  • Keep your baby content between feedings
  • Allow for active awake time
  • Normalize the hunger response
  • Help you respond to our little one’s needs more accurately (e.g., not assuming that every cry means they’re hungry)
  • Provide adequate calories during the day, which, in turn, allow for more consolidated sleep at night
  • Helps your baby get the right balance of protein and fat that are vital for proper growth and development

To combat the tendency to snack and sleep, encourage full feedings during the day by:

  • Knowing what your baby’s hunger cues look like (e.g., trying to put their hand in their mouth, opening and closing their mouth, shaking their head from side to side)
  • Stimulating your baby while they’re feeding to keep them awake (e.g., taking a break in the middle of feeding, rubbing a damp cloth on their face or chest, doing a diaper change halfway through)
  • Waiting 15-30 minutes after they wake up to feed
  • Going up a nipple size if they only take an ounce or two before falling back asleep

Keeping your baby awake for more time by encouraging full feedings can help reset their internal clock and prevent day/night confusion from continuing for weeks and months on end.

7) Understand Wake Windows

baby swaddled upWake windows are exactly what they sound like — the amount of time your little one is awake between naps.

Understanding these natural cycles can help you ensure that your baby is awake long enough between naps to be tired (but not too tired) when the sun goes down.

Why are wake windows so important for overcoming day/night confusion?

Because, when a baby is overtired (i.e., they’re outside their wake window), their body responds by releasing adrenaline and other chemicals that make it much harder for them to relax. This natural stress response isn’t unique to babies — it happens in adults, too.

Overcoming this stress response in adults is usually easier than it is in babies. An adult can do any number of things — from exercise during the day to minimizing screen time at night — to make themselves more tired.

A baby hasn’t developed that level of control over their environment (and that level of self-control) yet. You need to provide it for them.

Finding the right wake windows for your baby can help them to be ready for longer rest at night and prevent them from becoming overtired to the point that they can’t fall asleep.

For more information on your newborn’s natural wake/sleep rhythms, check out this article from the Newton Baby blog: Wake Windows By Age: A Month-By-Month Guide.

8) Engage With Your Baby During The Day

One of the best things you can do to help your little one overcome day/night confusion is to engage with them during the day.

For newborns who are just a few days old, wakeful periods may range anywhere from 30 minutes to 90 minutes.

During that time, do your best to stimulate your baby in a variety of ways, including:

  • Talking to them
  • Singing
  • Reading to them
  • Playing with toys and bright-colored objects in their field of view
  • Gently dancing with them in your arms
  • Going for a walk
  • Listening to music
  • Giving them a massage
  • Giving them a bath

These types of engagement are also great for their physical and mental development. Not only are you helping them stay awake so they’ll get on a regular sleep schedule, but you’re also stimulating their growth.

Even just taking them along while you perform your daily chores — laundry, cooking, tidying, walking the dog — can help them reset their circadian rhythms and make overcoming day/night confusion just a bit easier.

For more information on developing good sleep habits, take a few minutes to read these articles from the Newton Baby blog:

It Takes Time To Overcome Day/Night Confusion

baby that is swaddled

As you work to overcome day/night confusion, 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 of 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.

Give Your Little One The Gift Of A Good Night’s Sleep 

When it comes right down to it, the quality and duration of your newborn’s sleep has a lot to do with the mattress in their crib.

The right crib mattress, along with the other suggestions on this list, can help your little one establish a more normal circadian rhythm right from the get-go by giving them a firm foundation on which to sleep.

The importance of that firm foundation is why we at Newton Baby created a 100% breathable, 100% washable, 100% comfortable Crib Mattress that is just right for babies of all ages.

And with our mattress’s Wovenaire® and Breathe-Thru technologies, you can sleep soundly knowing that should your precious little one accidentally roll onto their stomach at night, they’ll still be able to breathe.

That’s peace of mind — and a deep, restful sleep for your newborn — you can’t get anywhere else. It all starts with a Newton Baby Essential Crib Mattress!

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