Your Baby's Body Clock
Have you ever wondered why your child wakes at almost exactly the same time during the night regardless of what time he went to sleep? It can begin to feel like he has a little alarm clock in his brain that wakes him up at the same time each night. This is actually not that far from the truth!
- RN, RM, CHN, MHN, IBCLC
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What is a body clock?
Your child's internal body clock (also know as a biological clock or circadian rhythm) controls his daily biological functions which influence his behavior e.g. when he wakes, when he feels sleepy or active and whether or not he feels hungry. In fact your child's internal body clock has an impact on all of his bodily activities, right down to when he poops.
What sets our body clock
There is still much ongoing research into the exact mechanisms that function to set our internal body clock. It is believed that both internal factors e.g. proteins produced by the brain and external factors, which include the presence or absence of light, sensory input like touch, smell and temperature, as well as when and what we eat, all contribute to maintain our body clock in a 24 hour pattern.
Just as our internal body clocks can be "set" by these cues, they can also be "reset" to a different pattern depending on the cues we provide. For example, when we are on holidays we may start to sleep in or we may need to make more dramatic changes to our body clock to accommodate a different time zone if we holiday in another country. (The feeling of jet lag occurs as our body adapts to the new time zone.) Shift workers are constantly changing the cues which reset their body clock. However, as any shift worker will tell you, frequent changes to our daily routines means we are constantly resetting our body clocks and this eventually takes its toll on both our physical and emotional health.
For a baby or child a flexible feeding and sleeping routine not only assists their body clock to maintain a 24 hour pattern it also reduces anxiety and uncertainty associated with the unpredictability of constant change. Routines provide children with a sense of security as they learn to anticipate what the next step will be.
How you can help your child organize his body clock
In the womb babies are connected to their mother's circadian rhythm (body clock), but when they are born they quickly begin to develop their own biological clock. While some children will naturally establish a sleeping and/or feeding pattern on their own within the first few weeks, others may not establish any pattern for months or even years without parents help.
Just as you can adjust your own body clock, you can assist your child to organize his body clock by the cues you provide for him. When and how often you feed him will influence his feeding pattern. When you encourage him to sleep, how you settle him to sleep, and the environment in which your child sleeps, all influence his sleep patterns.
Feeding patterns influence sleeping patterns and visa versa; by making changes to one often affects the other. Your child's pattern of feeding and sleep during the day will also affect his nighttime feeding and sleep patterns and visa versa.
By gradually making small changes to the timing of the care you provide for your child will in turn provide the relevant cues necessary for his body clock to establish a 24 hour pattern. However, it's important that what you aim to achieve is realistic for your child's age and stage of development. For example it would unrealistic to expect babies younger than 6 months old to sleep through the entire night without feeding (although some do). I would also be unrealistic to expect a new feeding or sleep pattern to establish in the first day you try (although this too can sometimes happen).
Written by Rowena Bennett.
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