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Feeding and sleeping phases

Feeding and sleeping phases


After the milk comes in (if breastfeeding), or after the first 2 days (if bottle feeding), it is common for new babies to 'bunch up' their feeds at certain times, and spread them out over others, in a 24 hour period. The most widespread pattern for newborn babies involves moving 'in and out' of various phases, every 24 hours or so.

The phases usually consist of:

A 'regular phase'.

A 'regular phase' is when the baby has 2 or 3 feeds that are spaced at the 'expected' 3 to 4 hour intervals. Not many babies do this consistently over a 24 hour period in the first 8 weeks, but may have 2 or 3 breaks like this over 24 hours.

A 'wakeful phase'.

The 'wakeful phase' is when the baby is feeding frequently, (or constantly) every 1 to 2 hours. This could last an average of 2 to 6 hours, and can be at any time of the day or night. The wakeful phase is often accompanied by the baby being unsettled and/or crying. Many women refer to this time as 'the mothering hours' or the 'feed, vomit, poo' merry-go-round (that never seems to have an end sometimes!)

A 'sleeping phase'.

The 'sleeping phase' usually comes after the wakeful phase ends. The baby (and hopefully the mother) will usually fall into a deep sleep for about 4 to 6 hours or so, getting back to the 'regular phase' again.

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In the first few weeks, most babies will not know the difference between night and day. This means that their 'wakeful phase' can often be at an inconvenient time for you (for example from midnight till 4am), with the sleeping phase being when the rest of the household is awake (from 6 am till 11am!) This is very normal, until your baby's biorhythms slowly adapt.

Over time, the wakeful phase will slowly move around to occurring in the early evenings (usually somewhere between 4 and 10 pm). These tend to be the typical 'mothering hours' as the baby matures. Unfortunately, the 'mothering hours' also tend to come at the end of the day, when you are really tired and trying to organise dinner and/or bath and feed an older child(ren).

It will be at least 6 to 8 weeks (or more) before most newborn babies will move into a more defined, (or vaguely predictable) night and day sleeping and feeding cycle. For some babies it will come sooner, for others it will take 3 to 4 months, or longer. It is important for the woman to be able to rest and sleep when your baby is in their sleeping phase in the early weeks. This helps her to be prepared for the waking phase (often during the night hours). If the partner is helping with the baby, then 'taking shifts' may be more beneficial than both of you being exhausted together.

Trying to change a baby's feeding and sleeping patterns during the early weeks can often result in having a more distressed baby, mother and father (not to mention neighbours!) Most babies will adjust, and work out their night from day in a little while, but some will take longer than others to make this transition.

If you want to try and help your baby make this transition, there are some subtle things you can do to let your baby know that night is a time for more sleep.

When your baby wakes for night feeds you could try:

  • Feeding him or her by dimmed lighting. Don't turn on all the lights as bright lighting can stimulate their senses. Some women will use a torch, or a covered lamp (until they latch the baby or for changing them), and then turn the light off to feed.
  • Don't turn on music or the TV for night feeds. However, you could wear headphones or earplugs so you can hear the music or television, but your baby can't.
  • Try to limit eye contact and communication with your baby at night. Babies need to get the message that now is not the time to interact and play.
  • Only change the nappy if it is very wet or soiled. Changing nappies unnecessarily will usually wake them right up. Most second time mothers will attest to this one!

Last revised: Saturday, 15 December 2012

This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.

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