How I Helped My Baby Set His Internal Clock

By: Cristina Moreno, Penfield Children’s Center

First I want to clarify; this post is NOT about sleep training. Sleep training is a practice to help your child get accustomed to sleeping through the night, which I naively thought would be relatively easy to do. A few comforting pats on the butt, a few sleepy tears as I watch from a safe distance while he learns to settle himself back to sleep, and he would be “sleep trained” in a week, two at most.

Not only was I terrible at sleep training, I did not like it, not one bit. Sure, I liked the idea of helping my son sleep longer through the night and find ways to soothe himself if he did wake up, but after 15 minutes of the “cry it out method” I don’t know which of us was crying more. There are other methods for sleep training, but my success rate with any of those has been pretty sad.  That being said, I am not too proud to admit that I feed my son to sleep basically every single night. I let him get his fill and then watch him sleep peacefully. No tears, no fussing, just beautiful, quiet sleep. You might hear from other sources that feeding your baby to sleep is a definite “no”, and of course he will have to eventually get used to falling asleep on his own, but for now it works and it makes him happy, so that is good enough for me.

Despite having no luck with sleep training, I did manage to get us into a pretty comfortable nighttime routine where we are both able to get a good amount of rest by “setting” his internal clock. Does your baby sleep a lot during the day but is up and ready to play at night? Are you having a tough time breaking them out of the newborn sleep pattern of round the clock naps and snacks? If so, it is possible your baby’s internal clock still has not recognized that day is for play and that they should be sleeping more at night. While newborns need more frequent care, they tend to fall back asleep pretty quickly; it is when they get a little older and start adding playtime to their routine that going straight back to bed becomes a challenge. When my son started wanting to stay awake for longer periods at night, which coincided with the time I was getting ready to return to work, I knew I had to make some adjustments in order for me to function and for us both to get some rest. My goal was to a) keep him asleep for longer stretches of time at night, and b) help him go back to sleep quickly when he did wake up. Here are the tricks I found that really helped:

  • Set the mood. – It is important to have a relaxing environment when it is time to sleep, but it is equally important to allow the room to feel bright during the day so baby knows when it is time to be awake and active! The first time I heard about a baby’s internal clock was when we were looking for a paint color for his room. I wanted something soothing that would be easy on his eyes, but was advised against choosing darker colors because it could cause him to confuse his days and nights if the room felt dark and sleepy all of the time. Other things to consider are how much light comes in through your windows and how much lighting you use at night when feeding or changing diapers. I try to not turn on any extra lights when my son wakes up at night in order to avoid stimulating him.
  • Do not engage! – Speaking of stimulating, nothing perks a baby up faster than hearing mom or dad’s voice, so I really try to limit how much interaction we have during night hours. I avoid eye contact and talking while I go about with any night feedings and diaper changes, which might sound a little rough, but not engaging does not mean you are ignoring your baby. You are still meeting their needs for care and comfort, but you are adjusting your interaction to allow them to fall back asleep more easily. Make sure everyone is on the same page about how much you limit nighttime interactions. There was more than one occasion when my husband soothed our son at night by talking to him and left me with a wide awake baby I then had to somehow get back to sleep.
  • Know when to adjust the routine. – Having a feeding and sleeping routine was very helpful at the beginning, but when he was about three months old, my son began to want to cluster feed in the evenings. He ate normally throughout the rest of the day, every 3-4 hours just like he had since he was in the NICU, but seemed like he was starving at night and wanted to eat every hour. These close feedings in the evening, which he eventually grew out of, help him stay fuller longer and let us get through most of the night without waking up to eat.
  • Size up the diapers. – Some of the most heated conversations I have found on online parenting boards have been about whether or not to change diapers at night. At the beginning, I would change my son’s diaper at every feeding, including nighttime, but as he got older and had better control of his bladder, it was not always necessary. He is usually so sleepy at night that he eats with his eyes closed until he dozes, never fully waking up, so I started skipping nighttime changes altogether unless his diaper is dirty or he is truly awake. Around the time he turned six months, he started wetting through his diaper, and although sometimes I can get away with changing a sleepy baby’s diaper without completely waking him up, maneuvering him into a fresh pair of pajamas guarantees a grumpy baby. I decided to go up a diaper size at bedtime, but you can also find nighttime diapers that are extra absorbent. This may not work for you if your child is prone to getting diaper rashes, and you may want to speak to your child’s doctor if you are unsure about whether to skip diaper changes at night.

My methods may not be super scientific, but they worked well for us. So, no my son does not fall asleep by himself or always soothe himself back to sleep, but if he does wake up at night, we are usually both back to sleep within 20 minutes, and to me that is a success.

How have you helped your child learn the difference between night and day?

For more sleep training tips, visit: http://penfieldbuildingblocks.org/2014/09/sleep-training-helping-child-get-bed-stay-asleep/

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