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How your baby's sleep works

27 Nov, 2023

Does your baby just know how to sleep when they're born? Do they sleep like you or is there something different about the way your baby sleeps? And who made up the phrase ‘sleeping like a baby’ and what does it mean?

Your baby’s sleep is part of their physical development, just like learning to walk and talk. Sleep is linked to many important parts of their development, such as early brain maturation, learning and memory, social and emotional development, and physical health. The maturing of your baby’s sleeping and waking cycles is one of their most important developmental tasks.

However, no-one can make you sleep longer than what your brain tells your body it needs to sleep, and no one can make you sleep when your brain isn’t ready to sleep. It’s the same for baby.

Except for when your baby is unwell, I’m sure you have already figured out they don’t sleep longer than they need to, and that you can’t make them go to sleep.

There is no simple, magical formula that will teach your baby to sleep. Sleep is complex, and it follows a normal developmental course similar to the way your baby develops the ability to walk and talk. Sleep is controlled by the body’s natural rhythms, with the master control centre deep in your baby’s brain.

Circadian rhythms

One important factor about sleep that’s often not talked about but plays a big role in your baby’s sleep is our natural circadian rhythms. These are the 24-hour day–night rhythms that involve physical, emotional and social tasks.

Healthy sleep is linked to the timing of these particular internal daily rhythms:

  • the cycles of light and dark, which synchronise the sleep– wake rhythms

  • body temperature

  • the hormone melatonin, which induces sleep

And to these external daily rhythms you can add:

  • feeding

  • social contact

  • activity patterns

In the early period after birth, your baby’s internal biological clock is maturing its functions. Each of these rhythms takes time to develop over the first few months of their life.

You might ask what’s so important about them. Research has found that parents who help their baby synchronise their day–night rhythm to a normal day–night 24-hour clock soon after birth, have a much more enjoyable relationship with their baby. So, it’s useful to understand how you can synchronise your baby’s daily biological and external rhythms. Here’s how you can do it.

Your baby’s day–night rhythm

Your baby’s biological clock needs to be set to that traditional day and night rhythm – not a modern one with lots of artificial light.

For the first four weeks of your babies life, your baby doesn’t follow a normal day and night pattern – they don’t wake up with the sun or go to sleep when it gets dark. But you can help your baby begin to develop this natural day and night pattern right from the start of their life.

During these first four weeks, your baby sleeps and feeds every 2 to 4 hours, day and night. At about 4 weeks of age, your baby becomes more wakeful during the day, especially just before or after sunrise. In fact, your baby’s biological rhythm of sustaining awake periods during the day comes ‘online’ before their ability to sustain longer periods of sleep during the night. So, bright light will make your baby more awake, but darkness won’t always stimulate sleep – that’s important to remember.

It can seem that your baby has the ability to stay awake, especially if you keep them in a bright, stimulating environment – which makes sense when you think about it. You are probably just the same. It’s important for you to know this, because it helps you to understand why it’s sometimes difficult for very young babies to go to sleep.

After your baby is 2 months old, they will probably wake at sunrise – anywhere between 4.30 am and 7 am – and you may have difficulty resettling them at this time of day. This also happens at the end of the day, around sundown, anywhere from 4 pm to 7 pm. This is often the time when your baby will be very grumpy and cry a lot.

What does all this mean and how can it help you? Well, you can organise your baby’s routines to help their internal and external rhythms adjust to day and night. And the way to help your baby coordinate their day–night rhythm to a 24-hour day is to expose them to natural sources of light and dark so their rhythms develop naturally and on time.

Help establish your baby’s day–night rhythm

  • Get more natural daylight outside. Take your baby for short walks in a pram out in the sunshine, especially if your house doesn’t have much natural light. It’s important to follow the SunSafe guidelines for protecting your baby’s skin (see the Cancer Council website here). Make sure to keep your baby out of direct sunlight as much as possible when UV levels are 3 and above. Also, sunscreen isn’t recommended if your baby is less than 6 months old. Dress your bub in light clothing and a hat to cover up.

  • Get more natural daylight in the house. Keep your curtains open and let the daylight in so both you and your baby have increased exposure to natural daylight. If your house is dark, turn the lights on if possible, especially during the first eight to 10 weeks. Greater exposures to light in the day and natural dark at night will help both of you to sleep better.

  • Have a consistent bedtime. Put in place a predictable and flexible bedtime routine each evening with a predictable lights-out time. Your baby’s bedtime doesn’t have to be exactly at sundown – just a regular bedtime when your baby enjoys prolonged quiet and darkness each night. Short periods of dim light for feeding won’t be a problem.

  • Keep lights dimmed. Having bright lights on at night will interfere with synchronising your baby’s melatonin to their circadian rhythm and reduce the amount their body produces.

  • You also need a good night’s sleep! You will benefit from a predictable period of lights-out time and decrease in blue-light exposure 2 to 3 hours before bedtime. This down time will help your circadian sleep–wake rhythm.

Article supplied by Tresillian.

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