How Do You Teach a Newborn the Difference Between Day and Night?

How do you teach a newborn the difference between day and night? My baby girl was born thinking night time was from about 4pm-2am. How could I tell? She would  sleep “hard” when she napped during these hours. You know the cute, limp-baby, happy sleep? Then right at 2am she would open those pretty eyes as if she were a baby owl and look around like it was the middle of the day. She would not be sleepy again till 4:30am! By then I was so exhausted it hurt. Moms of newborns know this feeling! If you are in a similar situation, here are the basic steps to teaching a newborn to sleep at night instead of all day. The overarching goal is to teach your newborn that days are for eating, playing, and napping while nights are for sleeping and quiet snacking.

1. Lights On During the Day and Lights Out at Night
This goal of this first step is to make night and day feel very different to your newborn. Keep the lights on during the day even when your newborn is napping. At night, keep the lights low and sound levels down. If you watch TV during night feedings to stay awake, keep the volume turned down or use the subtitles. Some babies also enjoy the sound of a white noise maker at night as well. Soon your newborn will begin to associate light with day and dark with night.

2. Feed Often During the Day
During the day, wake your newborn up often to eat.The goal is for your newborn to start associating daytime with being awake and eating. A newborn who does too much sleeping during the day and not enough eating will want to catch up on calories during the night. As Stacey, one of our contributors, puts it, more feeding during the day equals less at night! Newborns need to eat at least every three hours, and nursing babies often need more than that. If your newborn is taking long (over three hour) naps during the day, wake them up to eat. Lindsay found with her children that doing this from the start helps them get into a routine and learn to sleep for longer at night. Another idea to try if your newborn is waking up hungry just after going to bed for the night, is offering an extra few ounces of milk at night. Stacey did this by pumping earlier in the day, so there was a little extra milk to make sure her son’s belly was full before bed. And speaking of a full belly, be sure that the extra feeds in the afternoon and evening are full meals. Don’t let your newborn graze or fall asleep at the breast or bottle. Aimee was a stickler about giving her nursing babies a full meal at each feeding. This meant lots of burping breaks and cold washcloths to baby’s tiny toes so that baby wouldn’t just feed for 10 minutes and be off to La La Land. Full feedings equal longer sleep.

3. Encourage Regular Awake Time During the Day
If all the snuggling by siblings or grandparents is keeping your newborn asleep all day, Neeley suggests having your older child lay the baby down on a blanket and spend time playing with her. Newborns love back rubs, and some like simple toys to look at as well. Newborns need lots of sleep; that’s part of being a newborn. Don’t attempt to keep a newborn awake for long periods. We just want to encourage the naps interrupted by frequent eating and looking around to happen during the day not the night! Waking a newborn up can be difficult. If you are having trouble, a backrub, diaper change, or the classic last resort of a cool washcloth on the feet will usually do the trick!

4. Shift the Longest Blocks of Sleeping to Nights
The last step is to find the closest block of sleep time to your bedtime and start shifting it towards a workable bedtime. Our first day home from the hospital my newborn started sleeping soundly at 4pm and only woke up for a brief snack between then and 9pm. What I did starting on day three was let her sleep from 4pm until 6:30pm, wake her up to eat from 6:30pm – 7:00pm, and finally do my best to keep her awake between 7pm and 8:30pm. At first, it was pretty challenging, and we used the washcloth trick more than once, but after a few days she started naturally being awake and alert from 7:00pm – 8:30pm and then going down for a nice three hour block of sleep to start our night.

5. Troubleshooting
These are the basic steps for how to teach a newborn the difference between day and night. Baby sleep is a big subject. Sometimes newborns seem determined to sleep only while being held. Here is a past post on helping a newborn learn to sleep in a crib. Lindsay learned that babies quickly recognize routines. How the baby falls asleep during the day whether it’s drifting off on her own, falling asleep while being held, or falling asleep while nursing, will naturally be the baby’s expectation at night. In other words, make sure the falling asleep routine you establish during the day is one you want to continue at night. Sometimes, a newborn doesn’t seem to have any long sleeping blocks at all because of challenges with nursing, colic… etc. In those cases, focus on the eating and colic issues first, and then the sleep schedule will get much easier to adjust.

My baby girl is eleven weeks old now, and typically we’re up twice a night for a quick nurse and then it’s right back to sleep. We are well on our way to learning to sleep at night. Your baby will learn too. No matter how many times, you are getting up at night, hang in there! The newborn stage is a stage, and more sleep is coming our way!

Mommy Medicine is a group of moms that love sharing tricks, tips and strategies with our fellow moms, so send us your mommy questions you would like to see as the subject of a blog. We would love to hear from you!  Subscribe here to receive posts straight to your inbox!

Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (6/12/2018) Josh Puetz (Flickr)

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