Why Do Babies Get Their Days and Nights Mixed Up?

Feel it ever feel like your babies get their days and nights mixed up? They do. Here's why and some tips on how to fix it.

Illustration of a monster asleep during the day and awake at night
Illustration by Brent Mosser

Most of us likely want to repress the memories of sleepless nights, puffy eyes and general zombie-like monotonous rhythm of feed, burp, sleep with our babies. While “sleep when your baby sleeps” is promising advice for new parents, that often means becoming nocturnal, as newborn sleep patterns are reverse cycled.

But why are babies up all night and awake during the day? Some experts weigh in.

Day/night confusion

According to Dr. Harvey Karp, nationally renowned pediatrician, child development specialist and author of The Happiest Baby series, babies are “mixed up” from the beginning.

“In the womb, there are no clocks,” he says. “When the womb is nice and jiggly from their mom’s activity, that’s when they like to doze off. But when the womb is still and boring (Mom is at her desk working or asleep in bed), that’s when they like to play.”

Karp says once a baby is born, these patterns continue, as parents often perpetuate them by allowing babies to sleep all day and feed at night.

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Normal sleep patterns for newborns

While all children are different, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that for the first two months of life, newborns need 16-18 hours of sleep, consisting of eight to nine nighttime sleep hours and seven to nine hours of naps. Shortly after, it is recommended to slowly introduce gentle stimulation during the day toincrease daytime wakefulness.

“I recommend looking for their cues (yawning, fussiness, rubbing their eyes, less cooing andsmiling) and working towards sleep trainingbetween 2-4 months of age,” says Dr. Anita Chandra-Puri, pediatrician with Northwestern Medicine and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Setting the schedule straight

Karp says when it comes to shifting a baby’s sleep schedule, parents should recreate the sleep cues they loved so much in the womb.

“Snug surroundings, motion and whooshing noise of the womb helps babies sleep while they were inside of you, so once they’re born, use tight swaddling, white noise and motion at night to signal to your little one that it’s time to nod off,” he says.

Another helpful tip, Karp says, is introducing a dream feed to a baby’s nighttime schedule. Dream feeding is the practice of feeding a sleeping infant with the goal to encourage them to sleep longer.

“Before you go to bed gently take your baby out of bed and feed her while she’s not fully awake,” Karp says. “This will help prevent hunger from rousing her in the wee hours of the morning.”

Pediatric Sleep Consultant Maggie Moore, the owner of the digitally based Moore Sleep, suggests providing lots natural or artificial light during the day, particularly in the mornings.

“Open the blinds, take them outside (weather permitting) and fill your home with light,” Moore says. “This will help them begin to associate light, or daytime, with awake time.

Moore also suggests making sure the baby gets plenty of activity during the day, including tummy time, mat play, swinging or reading, while making nighttime activities boring and dark to create an atmosphere optimal for sleeping.

Advice for sleep deprived parents

While getting your child on a proper sleep schedule may seem like a task, remember “this too shall” pass.

“Take turns between parents if possible or share responsibilities so everyone has the chance to maximize their sleep and feel better rested,” Chandra-Puri says.