Little Night Owls

by Karen Miles

Little Night Owls

“Don’t you know it’s the middle of the night?” you ask your infant, who’s looking up at you, wide-eyed. That he doesn’t have a clue  — and couldn’t care less  — is clear; he’s sleeping away his days and raring to go for long stretches at night.

It’s natural for a new baby to have his days and nights flopped to a certain extent, says Barbara Howard, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Virtually every infant wakes during the night to feed and takes daytime naps, but some newborns have their most wakeful, alert hours  — maybe several in a row  — after midnight, while their longest slumber occurs when the sun shines.


Most of us function on a circadian rhythm  — a 24-hour cycle in which we sleep in 7- or 8-hour increments during the darkest part of the day. Newborns-whose biological clocks aren’t mature yet-may take a few months to catch on. That’s a long time to wait when you’re an exhausted new parent. Fortunately, there are some ways to speed the process.

“The key is to take advantage of environmental cues that tell our body’s internal clock when to sleep and when to be active,” says Dr. Howard. Light is the primary cue, but feeding and social interaction also play a part.



  • An hour or so before bedtime, reduce stimulation: Lower the lights, and keep your interactions quiet. Cuddle and whisper to him, but don’t use this time to show him a new mobile.



  • When your baby wakes for his nighttime feedings, keep the atmosphere subdued. Speak quietly, and leave off any bright lights. Rock him back to sleep, or tuck him in next to you to nurse, letting him stay there after he nods off again.


  • If his room is dark in the morning, open the shades or turn on the light. Pick him up and encourage him to wake up  — talk to him in an upbeat voice, show him interesting things, change his diaper, and dress him for the day.
  • If your baby sleeps more than four hours in a row during the day, wake him. Feed him, play with him, and include him in your activities as much as you can. Lively surroundings will signal that it’s time to be awake.
  • If a bath relaxes him, give him one before bed. If it refreshes him, use it during the day to keep him going a bit longer.Soon enough, your gentle daily lessons will get your baby  — and you  — off the night shift.