Helping Your Baby Develop Their Circadian Rhythm

This is a Guest Post by Pediatric Sleep Consultant Adele Thompson

newborn baby sleep

If there’s one thing we’re told by other parents when expecting our first child, it’s to ‘sleep when baby sleeps’. Whether or not one would consider this to be entirely practical advice, veteran parents try to stress this point simply because of the exhaustion most parents experience in those first weeks after their child is born.

That's because very young babies have not developed their circadian rhythm--or biological clock--yet. It is normal and healthy newborn behavior to feed every 2-3 hours and to be up for periods of time in the middle of the night. It all comes down to our biological clock, also known as the circadian rhythm, which does not fully develop until around 3-4 months of age.

But don’t despair! Just because it's normal, doesn't mean that your baby's crazy upside down sleep schedule has to ruin your life. I’m going to address some things you can do to encourage your baby to sleep at night and help her to develop those wake/sleep patterns. 

First, let’s talk about the what the circadian rhythm really is, and why it's important.

What is a circadian rhythm?

Our circadian rhythm is roughly a 24-hour cycle that drives our sleep and wakefulness periods. It is largely influenced by variations in light. When light travels through our optic nerve to a group of cells in our brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions, this group of cells releases a hormone called cortisol, which helps to feel awake. When there is an absence of light, these cells release melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sleepy.

A siesta sounds awfully good right now, doesn't it? 

A siesta sounds awfully good right now, doesn't it? 

In the evening and throughout the night, melatonin levels remain relatively high, promoting long periods of sleep. Morning light encourages the production of cortisol which counters the effects of melatonin and helps us to feel awake. There are natural dips and peaks in a 24-hour period. The strongest dips (where we will feel the most sleepy) are typically around 2-4am and 1-3pm (The National Sleep Foundation). Now we know why so many cultures encourage the Siesta! Hmmm….I think they’re on to something!

 

In utero, the baby’s circadian rhythm is linked to maternal hormones, but once baby is born, she has to rely on her own biological clock, which takes time to develop the rhythm and nuances that older children and adults have. As mentioned, the baby’s own circadian rhythm generally kicks in around 3-4 months of age.

How you can help biology along

Thankfully, there are some things we can do as parents, to help set that biological clock as fast as possible. It is also important to know what not to do so you don’t sabotage your child’s naturally developing rhythms. Here are some tips and tricks to help your baby develop a healthy and consistent wake/sleep cycle:

  1. Engage baby in a regular routine. Having the same time of the day for sleeping, eating and playing will go a long way in regulating hormone production and secretion. It can be difficult to feel like you have a routine in those first few weeks, so focus on establishing mornings and night time routines at around the same time each day and night. Another possible way to help baby establish a routine is simply to have him with you in your own routine. Research by Custodio et al. (2007), suggests that sleep patterns adjust more swiftly when the child is part of the parents’ routine. This can be linked to the parent being active and inactive at roughly the same time each day.

  2. Expose your baby to natural light cues as much as possible. According to a study done by Rikvees et al. (2004) with pre-term infants, babies who were exposed to natural lighting patterns as well more afternoon sunlight adapted to the 24-hour circadian rhythm cycle more quickly and slept better at night.

  3. Create a soothing and relaxing bedtime routine. Even if it feels unclear to you if baby is ready for bed, it's important to create a consistent nighttime routine. 20-30 minutes is ideal for length. Keep it the same each night for the first while. Try to have as much of the routine as possible happening in the bedroom with dim lighting to promote melatonin production. Many parents find that a short warm bath is a valuable part of the bedtime routine for baby, as it tends to relax the baby. It’s also a great opportunity for bonding moments!

  4. Block out as much light as possible at night through blackout blinds. I like BlackoutEZ curtains, but there are many different products to choose from that will get the job done! The important thing is to help baby's body learn the difference between night (dark) and day (light). 

  5. Breastfeed at night or use stored breastmilk if that is an option for you. Breastmilk contains tryptophan, which encourages the production of melatonin, our sleepy hormone.This is the same hormone that makes us so sleepy after eating a big turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, so you know it works on babies too!

 
cocoon cam in baby nursery
 

 What slows down the process

Now that we know what we want to do, here are a couple of things that we want to avoid doing. This list may seem like common sense, but you'd be amazed how easy it is to fall into the wrong patterns.

  1. No night-time play! Do not encourage your little one to play, or assume that it is playtime in the middle of the night just because she doesn’t seem tired. It’s true that for those first weeks, she may be ready to play at 2am for an hour, but even though you won’t be able to make her sleep before she’s ready, please don’t get into the habit of engaging in active play, doing laundry (yes, I have had clients do this!) or really doing anything that is stimulating. Quiet, calm, and dimly lit is the MO for night time. 

  2. Note for parents: it can be hard to stay awake at night when baby is awake, but you might wany to avoid the use of brightly lit smartphone or tablet screens while you’re up in the wee hours. The blue light emitted by screens can inhibit melatonin production, which will make it difficult for you to fall asleep once your baby has dozed off again. Apple devices now have a NIght Mode, which warms the tone of the screen and reduces the blue hue, which is a great option for those of you using a smartphone-enabled monitor such as Cocoon Cam.

  3. Make sure your baby is actually awake before going to him! One of the biggest surprises to me as a new Mom was just how active my son was at night, even while sleeping. I realize now that I probably woke him up many times when he wasn’t really awake or ready to wake, but just experiencing a period of high movement. Here’s the thing: newborns spend much of their sleep in R.E.M sleep, which is our active sleep state. As adults, we have a paralysis mechanism that prevents us from jumping out of windows while we’re dreaming (obviously, a good thing!) but babies have not yet developed this. This means that babies can be incredibly active while they are sleeping, to the point where it’s easy to mistakenly think that they are awake. This is where an HD Video monitor like  Cocoon Cam can be incredibly helpful if your newborn is in another room. Before you go in to pick him up and feed him at night, look to see if his eyes are still closed. If they are, just wait. Let him wake up naturally for that feeding so that you’re not inadvertently creating more nighttime wakeups.

Some babies will naturally adjust to the 24 hour cycle easier and earlier than others. The good news is, that they will all adjust at some point within the first 4 months!

So hang in there, do what you can, and enjoy the brief newborn period for all the wonders and joys that it holds. Soon enough, your little one will be sleeping like a baby!

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