- Academic Departments
- Colleges and Schools
- Community Photos
- Educational Excellence
- Husky Sports
- Research at the UW
- UW Today News
- Vision & Values
- Visit the UW
- Spotlight on Sustainability
- Spotlight on Healthy Lives
- Spotlight on Global Citizens
- Spotlight on Innovation
A Key to a Baby's Sleep is Developing Rhythm, Circadian Rhythm
“Sleep is a basic need. Think of sleep like oxygen. We don’t ask people to breathe less…You have to value your child’s need for sleep and your need for sleep.”
A new baby wreaks havoc with one of the most basic human needs: sleep. Newborns stubbornly refuse to follow the natural rhythm of sleeping at night and staying awake during the day. Instead, they demand meals, fresh diapers and attention at all hours, often leaving their parents bleary-eyed and exhausted.
A major reason for all of this disruption is that an infant’s circadian rhythm is not fully developed. Circadian rhythm is the roughly 24-hour internal clock in humans that governs physiological functions, such as sleep, which ebb and flow during night and day, says Karen Thomas, a University of Washington professor who has studied the relationship between mothers and their infants’ sleep-wake patterns for the last decade.
For parents, the harsh reality is that infants simply don’t have mature circadian rhythm. Their brains are not developed enough to fully follow the patterns and they cannot self-regulate. If circadian rhythm is a dance, newborns don’t yet know all of the steps.
A lack of a mature circadian rhythm helps to explain why babies often sleep in fidgety bursts of one to three hours, wake in the middle of the night and then sometimes show no interest in closing their eyes again. Babies do not sleep as deeply or as long as their parents, and it typically takes months or longer for them to develop those habits.
“They are not really hooked into the 24-hour day,” says Thomas, who teaches in the UW School of Nursing’s Department of Family and Child Nursing.
Parents, however, are; and a baby’s disruptive sleep patterns can leave them desperate for a few more hours of slumber. In fact, sleep is one of the biggest worries among new moms and dads. Type sleep into Amazon.com’s search engine for baby products and you get 2,121 items.
The good news is parents do not need to buy these products to encourage development of their baby’s circadian rhythm
, and hopefully get more sleep. The bad news is there is no magic bullet. Circadian rhythm does not mature overnight - it can take a year or longer before a baby sleeps eight hours straight, according to Thomas. It is also important to remember that each baby is wired differently, and it’s easier for some to self-regulate and fall asleep.
But, there are common rules parents can follow to encourage their baby to develop a stronger circadian rhythm, so everyone can get a better night’s sleep.
Parents should not overhaul their routines because their new baby’s sleep pattern isn’t in sync with the rest of the household. Instead, they should maintain as much of those routines as possible. In the evening, the pace in the home should slow - think of it as “turning down the house” - members of the family should quiet down, and rooms should be darkened at bedtime, Thomas suggests.
“When the baby wakes up at 2 a.m. hungry don’t turn on the TV. Don’t play peek-a-boo. Feed her quietly in muted light or darkness,” says Thomas, the UW’s Ellery and Kirby Cramer Endowed Professor in Nursing. “Stick to the traditional night-and-day routine as much as possible.”
In fact, turn off the television before bedtime. Even if parents are watching a program that isn’t designed for kids, flickering on the screen may keep the baby awake.
By following these rules, parents lay the groundwork for a baby to develop her circadian rhythm and sleep longer. As a baby grows, these rules will encourage her to hook into the natural rhythm of the 24-hour day, according to Thomas.
“Parents need to take charge of the home environment,” Thomas advises.
Parents who struggle with infant sleep issues might consider keeping a sleep journal, where they can track when their baby is awake and asleep, Thomas suggests. A journal can teach parents one of the most important lessons of a baby’s first year: It will get better. Their baby will indeed sleep for longer periods of time.
A sleep journal can also identify times during the day when a baby typically dozes and mom or dad can grab a nap. This will encourage new parents to follow another long-standing rule: Sleep when the baby sleeps.
And parents need sleep. The images of zombie-like new moms and dads are ingrained in our collective consciousness, but that does not mean parents should accept that state.
“Sleep is a basic need. Think of sleep like oxygen. We don’t ask people to breathe less,” Thomas says. “You have to value your child’s need for sleep and your need for sleep.”
The value of sleep for babies is well documented. It plays an important role in their physical and mental development, and newborns sleep 10.5 hours to 18 hours a day, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But, researchers only recently began to explore connections between unhealthy sleep habits in childhood and chronic illnesses. The work is only beginning, but it is one more reason to help a baby develop her circadian rhythm and get a good night’s sleep.