What is melatonin, and how it can help my baby sleep better

Newborn sleep is a little all over the place. After nine months of living in relative darkness, and with their internal clocks (or circadian rhythm) regulated by their mother in the womb, they aren’t yet synchronised with the external 24 hour clock. Hunger (or lack of it) usually determines when a newborn baby sleeps and wakes during this period, which can be often and at any time, day or night.

It’s normal and healthy newborn behaviour to feed every 2-3 hours and to be awake during the night, and sleepy during the day. But the great news is that you can make a few small changes to encourage your baby to regulate their sleep patterns.

Melatonin is one of the keys to sleep

‘Melatonin is known as the sleep hormone and it peaks in the bloodstream just before we go to sleep. It is known as the “sleep trigger”.’ (Mandy Gurney, Sleep Educator to health professionals across the UK).

How you can help to encourage melatonin production

Our sleeping and waking cycles are determined by darkness and daylight. By around 3 to 4 months, babies start to make their own melatonin. Until then, we can help biology along while their own circadian rhythms develop.

1. Establish a soothing bedtime routine

It can be difficult to form any kind of routine in those early months, but if you can gradually start to implement a basic bedtime one, you’ll set your baby up to know what to expect each night. Consistency and predictability are essential to regulating their sleep patterns. Even just twenty minutes, and include a bath when you can, will ensure bub is relaxed and ready for sleep. Get in the bath with her for extra bonding time!

2. Get outdoors in the mornings

Sunlight is thought to increase serotonin levels, which is the ‘happy’ hormone, making your baby feel calm. Serotonin plays an important role in melatonin production. Morning sunlight helps to reinforce their body’s natural wake and sleep cycles. So, try to get out for a walk in the mornings, and you’ll both be rewarded with the additional benefits of Vitamin D and fresh air.

3. Block out any light at night

It’s important for your baby to start to distinguish between day and night, so ensure the bedroom is pitch black at night. You can use blackout curtains or another product to block out the light, particularly during daylight savings. The bedroom should also be cool (ideally about 18 degrees). Night feeds aren’t time for play and chatter, so keep the lights low and the noise to a minimum.

4. Turn off the screens before bed

TVs and device screens (and any other artificial light) decrease melatonin, so ensure screens are turned off at least an hour before bed. Dim the lights in the house, and reduce noise and stimulation. If you’re going to look at your smartphone during the night, see if you can get a blue-blocking option. The blue light can inhibit melatonin production for you, so if you’re struggling to fall back to sleep after you’ve fed your baby, this could be why.

5. Feeding plays a special role

Breast milk contains tryptophan (as does the protein in infant formula), which is an amino acid that is used by the body to make melatonin. When babies consume tryptophan before bedtime, they fall asleep faster. According to the Australian Breastfeeding Association, tryptophan levels increase and decrease with a mother’s circadian rhythm, so breastfeeding may help develop a baby’s internal body clock.

Helping you to sleep better

Following these five steps to helping your baby sleep better will benefit them in the long-run, but while you’re doing all of these things to boost melatonin production, you’ll also be encouraging better sleep for yourself. It’s a win-win for both of you! So, get some daily sunshine, establish your own bedtime routine, turn screens off well before bed, and eat plenty of tryptophan-containing foods, such as poultry, eggs, seeds, nuts, and cheese. Oh, and sleep when your baby sleeps. Seriously, everything else can wait!

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