What you need to know

Newborns don’t understand the difference between night and day.


Why newborns don’t sleep through the night

The biological process that controls our feelings of being sleepy or awake in a 24-hour period is called the circadian rhythm, or body clock. It's controlled by an area of the brain that responds to light, which is why most of us are most alert during daylight hours and are ready to sleep when it’s dark outside. 

Babies aren’t born with a circadian rhythm, and they don’t understand the difference between night and day. It's quite normal for newborns to get things backwards – being sleepy in the day and wide awake at night – because they don't know night is time for sleeping. Within the first three months, most babies gradually begin to organise sleeping and waking according to daily cycles of light and darkness. 

Getting your baby used to the day-night cycle 

It’s a good idea to start getting them used to the day-night cycle early on. During the day:  

  • make day feeds fun with time talking and cuddling.  
  • have the curtains slightly open when they’re sleeping. 
  • keep your everyday noises normal – use the vacuum cleaner and shower etc, even if they’re sleeping. Most babies sleep through household noises. 

During the night:  

  • keep the room quiet, and the lights low. 
  • when your baby cries in the night, settle or feed them as soon as you can. 
  • give night feeds in the bedroom. Babies need to feed at night for the first six months so they get enough food for growth and development. Feeding them in the bedroom will help keep these feeds short and make them different from daytime feeds. 
  • don’t play or talk to your baby while feeding. This will hopefully help them settle back to sleep easier. 

These first few months can be a struggle for parents suffering from sleep deprivation and the demands of caring for a new baby, but don’t worry, it'll get better. 

Remember, the most important things in these early months are responding to your baby and being flexible. If your baby’s unsettled, it’s fine to cuddle or rock them to sleep. It’s also okay if your baby sometimes falls asleep while they’re feeding. Do what works best for you and your baby.  

Helping your newborn settle and sleep

Aside from helping your baby understand the day-night cycle, there are a couple of other things you can do to help your baby settle and sleep in the first six months. By doing these things now, it can help your baby learn to sleep and settle themselves later on.  

Put your baby to bed sleepy but awake 

Have some quiet, calm cuddles before bed.  

Try to put your baby into bed - on their back with their face clear - while they’re sleepy, but still awake. This helps their bed become a familiar place to them, and it gives your baby the chance to associate falling asleep with being in bed. If your baby feels safe and comfortable, they may be more likely to go back to sleep by themselves if they wake in the night. This is called self-soothing. Babies who self-soothe sleep for longer.  

Some babies prefer to be rocked or fed to sleep. This is totally fine, but could mean they need to be rocked or fed back to sleep when they wake in the night.  

When you put them down in bed: 

  • give them time to settle. It’s normal for them to grizzle when you first put them into their bassinet, wahakura, cot or pepi pod. 
  • keep your baby warm, but not too hot in bed. One more layer than an adult would wear is enough. 
  • relax your baby by patting, stroking, talking to them quietly, or using a musical mobile. You can stay with them while they go to sleep, or leave the room when they’re calm but still awake. 
  • if your baby keeps crying or seems distressed, pick them up and comfort them, feed them if they're hungry and then try putting them back to bed. If they get too wound up, they’ll need your help to settle again. 
The patting settling technique

Start building a sleep routine 

All babies are different, and sleep patterns can vary a lot. It’s a good idea to let newborns sleep when they’re tired, and to feed on demand when they’re hungry. But when you and your baby are ready, it might help to try building a sleep routine. 

When your baby wakes up after a day nap, try doing things in a similar order like: 

  • feed them  
  • change their nappy  
  • enjoy some playtime. This may just be a quiet cuddle, reading a book, or it could be letting them stretch out and kick on a blanket.  
  • wait for tired signs, then try putting them down for their next sleep. 

Before you put your baby to bed at night, you could try something like giving them: 

  • a warm bath 
  • a gentle massage 
  • a feed 
  • and a quiet cuddle before you put them to bed. 

When your baby wakes in the night, you might want to try: 

  • quietly feeding them  
  • changing their nappy 
  • settling them back to sleep. 

Safe swaddling

Swaddling might help your baby settle down to sleep, or they may not like how it restricts their movement and affects their temperature. If you choose to swaddle your baby, make it safe by making sure: 

  • your baby is on their back 
  • you use a lightweight wrap 
  • the wrap's not so tight that it stops baby from moving 
  • the wrap's not so loose that it could cover baby's face 
  • baby is only swaddled when sleeping in their own bed. 

When baby starts trying to roll over, it’s time to stop swaddling, or to swaddle so their arms are free. 

Baby sleep and settling

Ministry of Health

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Safe sleep

Until they’re 12 months old, babies are vulnerable to SUDI (Sudden Unexpected Death of an Infant), also known as SIDS or cot death. It’s defined as the sudden and unexplained death of an infant during sleep, and each year in New Zealand it affects 40 to 50 babies. In many cases, death or injury could be prevented by using safe sleep practices.  

Babies should sleep in their own bed in the same room as you or the person looking after them for their first six months of life. It’s never safe to put your baby to sleep in an adult bed, on a chair or a couch. 

Cots and bassinets need to be set up away from blind cords, curtains, power points, heaters, pets and other children. 

If you’re planning to share a bed with your baby, put them beside you in their own baby bed, like a Pēpi Pod® or wahakura. This may help reduce the risk of your baby suffocating while they’re asleep. 

You should: 

  • put babies down to sleep on their back, not the tummy or side.  
  • make sure your baby’s face is uncovered when they’re sleeping. 
  • not smoke near or around your baby. 
  • provide a safe sleeping environment night and day. 

If babies fall asleep sitting up, a slouched neck (where their chin rests on their chest) may cut off their airway. Keep an eye on babies if they fall asleep in prams or car seats, and try to move them to bed so their airway is unrestricted.