Welcoming a new baby into your family is SO exciting for any parent. However, one of the most common (and exhausting) sleep challenges with a newborn baby is when they have their days and nights mixed up, otherwise known as day-night confusion.
I have VERY distinct memories being up with Emunah as a newborn at 3am trying to get her back to sleep, only for her to be staring at me with her eyes WIDE open. She was partying. I was half-asleep, slightly confused and OH so very tired.
If you can resonate with this struggle, know that you’re not alone! In fact, it’s one of the most common newborn sleep struggles my clients report before beginning my newborn sleep course.
In this article, I will discuss why newborns often have their days and nights mixed up and offer you practical tips for navigating this challenge and getting through it as quickly as possible.
What causes a newborn to have their days and nights mixed up?
The reason behind this day night confusion lies in the fact that newborns do not have a developed biological clock or circadian rhythm. Unlike adults whose bodies naturally adjust to waking and sleeping based on sunlight, newborns have spent nine months in the darkness of the womb and lacked exposure to external cues such as sunlight that help regulate sleep-wake cycles in adults. As a result, newborn babies are often born oblivious to the concept of day and night, making it VERY to find yourself with a newborn who sleeps all day and remains active throughout the night.
Furthermore, the hormones that regulate sleep and wake cycles in adults, such as melatonin, are not fully developed in newborns. Melatonin, for instance, plays a crucial role in promoting sleep and is released in response to darkness. Since newborns have limited melatonin production and no exposure to light-dark cues, their sleep-wake patterns become irregular and can lead to day night confusion.
The good news
The good news is that this phase is temporary. By the time your baby reaches 6-8 weeks of age, they usually outgrow this day night confusion as their biological clock begins to develop naturally and their bodies begin producing higher levels of melatonin. However, waiting for this milestone to come on its own will feel like an eternity, especially if you have a 2-week-old baby who is constantly partying night and asleep during the day.
Rest assured, there are steps you can take to accelerate the process!
How to teach a newborn baby the difference between daytime and nighttime
While it may take some time for your newborn’s biological clock to develop, there are several strategies you can employ to employ reset his internal clock and help speed this process along:
Expose your baby to lots of natural sunlight during the day (and darkness at night)
During the day, allow natural light into your home and engage your baby in activities near windows. This will help regulate his circadian rhythm and reinforce the association between daytime and nighttime. Open the blinds, keep the lights on, and encourage napping in brightly lit rooms. This exposure to light helps your baby distinguish between daytime and nighttime.
Conversely, when it is nighttime, minimize exposure to light. Blackout blinds will be your best friend! While you may need a dim nightlight or hall light for practical purposes like feeding, it is important to keep the lighting minimal. Avoid turning on bright lamps or bathroom lights, as this may confuse your baby’s body and lead them to think that the middle of the night is playtime. Try to differentiate between daytime feeds and nighttime feeds by feeding your baby in a brightly-lit, stimulating room during the day and in a very dark room at night.
It is important to note that this advice might seem contradictory since I always advise having a dark, quiet room for napping. However, this advice specifically applies to newborn babies in those first few weeks of life when their days and nights are mixed up. Before you focus on creating an environment conducive to good quality sleep in the long run, it’s crucial to first establish a clear distinction between day and night for your baby.
Create a soothing bedtime routine
Establishing a calm and relaxing bedtime routine will help your newborn learn the difference between day and night. While this routine should NOT be long and drawn out, make sure it’s slightly different than what you do to get your baby to nap during the day so that he understands that it’s not time for him to take another nap.
For example, your bedtime routine could include a bath, dimming the lights, reducing noise, a feed, a massage, a diaper change, and a bedtime song. The routine should also end with placing your baby into the bassinet for bedtime. This bedtime route will signal to your little one that it is time to wind down, prepare for sleep, and transition from daytime to nighttime.
Limit the length of your baby’s naps during the daytime.
Ensuring that your newborn doesn’t nap TOO much during the day is crucial to helping with day night confusion. Don’t get me wrong, while good quality naps are important to prevent overtiredness, there’s definitely such thing as too much of a good thing here. The popular saying, “never wake a sleeping baby,” doesn’t hold true here.
See, newborns are often capable of having one longer stretch of sleep over a 24-hour period. And we don’t want that stretch of sleep happening during the day- we want that stretch of sleep at night! Allowing this longer stretch to occur at night allows your baby’s biological clock to adjust to proper daytime and nighttime sleep patterns and to learn that nighttime is for sleep.
And obviously, it means that YOU benefit from a 4-5 stretch of sleep at night, which is worth its weight in gold when you have a brand new baby at home!
As a result, if your newborn consistently sleeps for 3-4 hour stretches during the day, I STRONGLY advise waking them up after a couple of hours of sleep. This way, you can preserve that longer stretch of sleep for nighttime and ensure your baby is giving you his longest stretch of sleep when YOU are also sleeping.
Don’t worry about waking your sleeping baby. There are MANY circumstances where waking your sleeping baby is the best step to take. And tackling a day-night confusion problem is one of them!
Encourage daytime wakefulness
Engage your baby in stimulating activities during the day, such as tummy time, gentle play, and interaction with family members. This will help promote alertness and make your baby more tired when nighttime arrives.
Patience and persistence is key
While these strategies can be helpful in expediting the development of your baby’s biological clock, it is worth mentioning that every baby is unique, and it may take time for your newborn to adjust to life outside the womb and no longer have their days and nights mixed up. Patience and perseverance are key during this phase. It is important to remember that sleep patterns can vary due to growth spurts or developmental milestones, leading to temporary setbacks.
In the meantime, it’s essential for parents to prioritize self-care during this exhausting phase. Taking turns with your partner for nighttime awakenings, seeking support from family and friends, and finding moments for rest and relaxation will definitely help you protect your mental health and survive those first few weeks after having a baby.
Day night confusion is a common challenge that MANY new parents (myself included!) face when their newborns have their days and nights mixed up. By following these strategies such as exposure to natural light, creating a distinction between day and night, and regulating daytime napping, you can help your newborn baby’s circadian rhythm adjust over time so that he no longer has his days and nights mixed up.
While it can be SO frustrating when your newborn has his days and nights mixed up, rest assured that this phase is temporary. With patience, persistence, and self-care, both you and your baby will soon enjoy better sleep and quality time together.
My newborn sleep course
On a side note, if you’ve got a newborn baby at home and sleep is NOT a thing for you right now, check out my newborn sleep course entitled “Getting a Head Start: All About Newborn Sleep”. In this course, I teach you how to maximize your newborn’s sleep and get him off on the right foot from day 1 so that you feel confident, empowered, and thriving during your baby’s first few months of life.