The Circadian What?! (Updated 2021)

Do you have a new baby in the house?  If you do, chances are you are beyond exhausted.  And for good reason.  For the first few months, babies wake every one to three hours.  All night long.  

Before I had a baby, the true import of that little tidbit didn't register.  I didn't realize that feedings took more than a few minutes.  My son, in fact, took about 45 minutes to an hour to breastfeed every time he woke up.   Add all the other aspects of nighttime waking - the getting up, the changing of diapers and possibly clothes and crib sheets, putting the baby back to bed, and lulling yourself back to sleep - and you have the makings of a truly sleep-deprived night.  

Before babies can sleep through the night (defined by most as sleeping 5 hours straight), they have to pass several developmental milestones.  For one, they have to adapt to the "circadian rhythm." The circadian rhythm is when the body knows to sleep at night and stay awake during the day. This rhythm begins at around eight weeks old.

Another milestone to pass is the decrease of the baby's Moro reflex.  The Moro reflex is normally present in all infants up to 3 or 4 months of age.  It is the physical response to a baby's perception of a sudden loss of support.  Scientists believe the baby feels as if he or she is falling, which causes sudden body movements, waking and crying. 

Additionally, weight is a milestone.  Most babies do not sleep for longer periods until they weigh about 12 to 13 pounds.  This is usually around three months old.  The baby must also need to feed less frequently, which depends on how much he or she can take in at a time and how much milk you are producing or providing.

    Until your little one passes these milestones, sleep can be elusive.  How can you maximize nighttime sleep time in the interim?  Here are some helpful tips. 

    1.  Help your baby adapt to the circadian rhythm by exposing him or her to Zeitgebers (environmental cues indicating whether it is day or night.)  In the womb, there was no day and night.  Thus, newborns are not born with an understanding of day being the time for wakefulness and night being the time for sleep.  To help your little one associate day with wakefulness and night with sleep, demonstrate the difference.  During the day, expose your baby to more light, noise, and playtime (interaction).  During sleep times (even for naps during the day), expose him or her to a quieter, darker environment.  Dim lights and make your interactions quiet and relaxing, rather than playful.  

    2.  When baby wakes for night feedings, try changing his or her diaper before feeding. There is less risk of post-feeding wakefulness if you fill that sweet tummy and put your contented baby to bed without the jostle and interaction of a diaper change. And you won't be wakened for diaper changes in between feedings. 

    3.  During nighttime feedings, keep noise and light to a minimum.  Do not turn on the television.  Try to minimize talking and activity.  This help ensures that baby knows late night feedings do not mean late night party time.

    4.  Keep your baby's crib in your room, close to you.  The proximity makes it easier to get your baby and put him or her back to bed.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents keep their infants in their room, but in a separate crib, for a minimum of six months as a way to decrease infant fatality.  

    5.  Put your baby to bed sleepy, rather than after he or she falls asleep.  This encourages your baby to fall asleep by his or herself.  

    6.  As your baby gets older (starting around 3 months), begin developing a sleep routine around the sleep patterns that will start emerging around two months old.  Your routine should not only include putting the baby to bed at the same times of day, it should include following a process that cues your baby that it is time to sleep.  Our process was to change diapers, put on sleep attire (pjs and sleep sack at night; soft pants and top - or a onesie - and sleep sack during day naps), breastfeed while reading and rocking in the rocking chair, place our son on his back in the crib, darken the room, and leave.  For us, it worked like a charm, but you will need to experiment to find what works best for you and your family.  For more about sleep routines, check out Make Sleep a Habit and this article by

    7.  Avoid blue light at night.  If you eliminated all sources of electric and electronic light at night, studies show you and your baby would probably find it easier to sleep.  The blue light that’s emitted from screens, florescent bulbs, and LED lighting can delay the release of sleep-inducing melatonin increase alertness, and reset the body’s internal clock (the circadian rhythm) to a later schedule.  To provide you with enough light for nighttime infant care, consider using a low watt, amber bulb at night instead.  Also, blue light filters may reduce the risk to sleep caused by viewing electronic screens at night.  For the more on the science of blue light's affects on sleep, read this article by

    8.  Minimize/control stress the best you can.  Stressed out babies lead to stressed out parents - and vice versa - and that can cause sleepless nights.  The effects of stress on babies, however, may extend discomfort in the moment and wakefulness.  To learn more about the long terms consequences of stress in infancy as well as tips for reducing and responding to baby's stress, click here

    As for parents, feeling stressed out is really common.  But if your stress levels are too high for you to be nurturing and project a calm, reassuring manner, screen for postpartum depression and make your psychological health a priority.  Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (such as postpartum depression) affect 15 to 20% of all mothers and about 10% of fathers.  Click this link to Postpartum Support International to learn more.  Talk to your doctor about your options. 

    Cheers to better, longer sleep!    

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