How to: Teach Baby the Difference Between Night & Day

And what lighting has to do with it.

Article & Photo courtesy of Well Rounded NY

Is it just us, or are all babies programmed to come out of the womb thinking nighttime is the right time to be awake? So as if we weren’t already sleep deprived enough, we spend whatever time we could be sleeping contemplating how to get baby to sleep — at night, that is, not during the day.

We’ll give you a hint: Baby’s confusion between day and night might have something to do with the lights in your house. “We are very light-sensitive creatures. When we look back before the invention of the electric light bulb, kids tended to sleep like a baby — all night long, soundly, profoundly without waking up, even if there was a loud noise,” says pediatrician Alan Greene, author of Asleep All Day, Up All Night. But now, “Sleeping like a baby often means waking up crying every couple of hours.” Darn you, Thomas Edison.

Before you go smashing all your lights out, you should know that not all bulbs are bad bulbs. In fact, some, like the Sleepy Baby® Biological LED Lamp, might even help. Unlike the melatonin-disrupting light found in typical bulbs and in all of your screens, the light from the Sleepy Baby bulb encourages melatonin production, promoting relaxation and helping establish your baby’s natural circadian rhythm. You know, one like you have. One that makes you sleep at night.

Below, Dr. Greene drills down on the importance of getting your light right, and offers a few more tips on getting your baby to drop the nighttime partying so you can all get some more sleep.

Why do so many newborns have their sleep cycles reversed during those first few weeks of life?
During the later part of pregnancy, each baby develops her own sleep/wakefulness rhythm. You can get a good idea of what this rhythm is by the baby’s activity patterns. Some babies will tend to be fairly quiet during the day — lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion as Mom moves about her daily activities. These same babies often begin doing gymnastics in Mom’s belly about the time things get quiet at night. Other babies tend to be active while Mom is active during the day and to be quieter at night. Whatever your baby’s pattern before birth, it is likely that she will continue the same rhythm in the period shortly after birth.

When can you expect a baby to start to recognize the difference between night and day?
In just a few weeks you will be looking back at this time with amazement. Was she ever really as small as those tiny clothes that she no longer fits into? She was always able to hold her head up, wasn’t she? Didn’t she always smile back at me? And even then, though you still won’t be sleeping through the night, the all-night play sessions will seem like a distant memory of a magical time before you knew just how wonderful being a parent really was.

Tell us about the role that light plays in helping a baby distinguish between night and day.
One of my favorite ways to help baby distinguish between night and day is to try to support the circadian rhythm, so named because it’s “circa dian,” or “about a day.” For most of us, it would be about a 25-hour rhythm where we have not only sleepiness and arousal that rise and fall, but also fluctuations in blood pressure, body temperature, and many hormones. It is a profound rhythm that we share with other living beings that is reset daily by certain cues from the environment. We are seasonal creatures. If we were in a cave and had none of these external cues, our circadian rhythm would eventually get completely off from other people in the external world. But for us that rhythm is reset by something called zeitgebers. Zeitgebers (which literally means “time giver” in German) are our friends. The more they are in line with each other and the more they are consistent, then the better, longer and deeper sleep we have. [And] the most profound zeitgeber is probably light.

But, as you said above, most of our light these days is provided by melatonin-suppressing light bulbs. And I obviously need light bulbs in my house! So what can I do?
One thing that we can do is try to keep the environment as dim as possible between sunset and sunrise. That can have a profound impact on sleep. When you’re camping, you tend to get very drowsy a couple of hours after sunset [because there are no artificial lights present]. That’s difficult in our modern, urban, digital life, but the more we can at least remove the wavelengths of light that trigger melatonin suppression, the easier it is to sleep.

There is a pigment in the retina, called melanopsin, which responds to a 475 nm signal, and suppresses melatonin or disorganizes it for the rest of the night. Eliminating that response from sunset to sunrise is a rather simple thing that can help people get drowsy earlier. There are now apps that will pull out the blue wavelength of light [found in traditional melatonin-suppressing light bulbs], which is about 475 nanometers (nm). You can also get light bulbs that pull out that wavelength of light in the evening or wear blue-blocker sunglasses to get rid of it. And pay attention to screens. Part of that means not viewing screens in the last hour or so before bed at least.

Are there other cues that can affect baby’s sleep?
Another strong zeitgeber is temperature. For most of the history of humanity, we experienced our evenings and nights as much cooler than daytime, but with central air and central heating we have compressed our temperature window in a very narrow range. Creating a cooler nighttime environment, 7 degrees cooler or more, helps with falling and staying asleep.

Is there anything we can do during the day to promote healthy baby sleep?
When actively trying to switch a new baby’s time clock, have bright lights on in the house during daylight hours. Keep up a steady stream of talking in normal conversational tones during the day. Play with baby’s feet often, and make eye contact whenever you can. As soon as the sun begins to go down, purposely avoid all of these things. When you feed her, try not to make eye contact with her. Speak only in whispers or sing-song tones. Sing lullabies. Have the lights dim in the house. And don’t stimulate her feet.

This article is by Jessica Pallay, courtesy of Well Rounded NY.  Conceived with love by former magazine editors Jessica Pallay and Kaity Velez, Well Rounded NY aims to be the singular pregnancy resource for city-savvy moms-to-be. Through reviews, profiles, expert Q&As, local guides and more, Well Rounded curates the New York City pregnancy and helps its readers come to terms – and term! – with pregnancy in the city.