Second night syndrome: what is it and what does it mean for you and your baby?

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  • When you've having a baby there's a mass of new information to take on board - but one term even the most experienced mums might not have heard of is the second night syndrome.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve not heard of it,’ says midwife Marie Louise of second night syndrome. “It’s not talked about all that often.”

    And, because the syndrome generally goes under the radar, Marie Louise often faces desperate questions from weary and tired parents when their baby just won’t settle – questions like: ‘Is it normal?’, ‘What’s wrong?’, ‘Will my baby ever sleep?’, ‘Why won’t my baby stop crying?’, or even ‘Am I doing a bad job?’.

    No new parent should feel this way – so here’s what you need to know about second night syndrome, and how you and your baby can get through it.

    What is second night syndrome?

    There is a theory that babies fall into a deep sleep for the first 24 hours of their life because of the the effort and stress of birth.

    After they wake up – by the second night – is when they become aware that life as they knew it has gone.

    couple with baby second night syndrome

    Credit: Getty

    This can be accentuated if you are breastfeeding as your milk hasn’t come in yet (which is normal – that’s usually on day three) and your baby may now be more hungry more often.

    During your baby’s second night in the outside world, they realise they’re not in their familiar home-of-nine-months any more.

    Their new environment has light, loud noises and touch, not to mention the cuddles from strangers.

    It’s also worth noting that this new home is about 15 degrees cooler and far away from the most comforting sound they’ve constantly heard, your heartbeat.

    All in all, it’s just a bit overwhelming and a little scary for the tiny tot, though Marie Louise is careful to point out that not every baby will go through this, and some will settle just fine.

    “If you’re prepared for and have an appreciation of the process they’re going through then you may well cope better and be able to understand your baby better,” she confirms.

    How long does second night syndrome last?

    As deep sleep takes over the baby’s first 24 hours, it’s thought that the so-called second night syndrome will begin on the second night of the baby’s life and continue, as our child sleep specialist Lauren Peacock says, the term is “pathologising completely normal newborn behaviour.”

    READ MORE: What is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – and what causes it?

    She says,  “Many babies sleep a lot in their first 24 hours, as they recover from the birth experience and slowly adjust to life “on the outside”. For some, this adjustment period is characterised by crying, wakefulness and extremely frequent feeding, often starting on the second night.”

    What should you expect on your second night with a newborn?

    While it may be completely normal behaviour, it can be daunting if you don’t know what to expect on your second night with your newborn.

    As Lauren says, this is what you can expect on your second night…

    • They’re likely to sleep a lot.
    • Crying.
    • Wakefulness.
    • Extremely frequent feeding

    Lauren says, “Babies are biologically hardwired to survive and are safest in the arms of their caregivers. Additionally, frequent feeding stimulates a mother’s milk-supply, further ensuring baby’s survival.”

    And adds that it might be easier said than done, “But keeping visitors to a minimum in the first few days and prioritising rest, recovery and bonding, for both you and your baby, can help to ease the transition from womb to world.”

    “If baby continues to be very unsettled or doesn’t appear to be satisfied after feeding, this should always be checked out as it could indicate a struggle to latch and feed effectively.”

    Six tips for getting through second night syndrome

    While it might be difficult, you and baby will get through the second night without any worries. But if you do want a little more help with getting your baby to sleep, either now or when they’re a couple of weeks older, there are some great baby sleep aids out there to help make your baby’s sleeping space better.

    1. Don’t worry

    sleeping baby

    Credit: Getty

    ‘This is a normal transition process that your baby may need to go through,’ explains Marie Louise.

    ‘If you are breastfeeding then your baby’s need to feed is sending signals to your breasts to make more milk. As long as your baby is fed when s/he wants for as long as s/he wants then your body will produce the right amount of milk.’

    The midwife adds that panicking and feeding them formula at this time may seem like the obvious answer but it will interfere with this process and less breastmilk will be made.

    As long as your baby has a safe sleeping space, either a high-quality moses basket, a crib or suitable cot that follows all the UK cot bed safety guidelines, they should be absolutely fine.

    2. Skin-to-skin is best

    Newborn babies have an innate need for comfort, which can be fixed by closeness, food and responsive parents, which is where skin-to-skin really comes into its own.

    Responding to your baby’s needs makes them feel loved, safe and secure. This alone can help your baby grow into a confident toddler.

    3. Enjoy alone time

    While people are understandably excited by your new addition, try not to have too many visitors on the first day.

    Marie Louise explains: ‘All those different voices and smells can be an overwhelming form of external stimulation for a newborn.’

    While they are adjusting to life outside the womb, being passed around can be stressful for newborns. Let him/her get used to their new surroundings gradually and receive comfort from the people and smells h/she already know.

    This also allows you to settle into your new role and rest when you can, rather than worry about the visitors.

    4. Stay familiar

    During this transition process familiarities will help keep your newborn calm.

    If you still have time then play music to your baby during pregnancy and then play this same music again, on the second day of your newborn’s life.
    ‘The music will be familiar to your baby as babies can hear as early as 16 weeks gestation,’ says Marie Louise.

    ‘They know your voice and they respond to sounds that they hear often. Play the same songs frequently to your baby throughout your pregnancy and when s/he is born this music triggers the blissful memories of life in the womb and is comforting and reassuring.’

    a sleeping baby second night syndrome

    Credit: Getty

    5. Have a ‘soapless’ bath

    Enjoying a bath with your newborn? Skin-on-skin will help calm them.

    While it’s best to keep the vernix – that’s a white chalky type substance – on baby’s skin for at least four weeks you can still take a bath, just don’t use bubble bath or any soap.

    Gently rub your wet hands over their head while they listen to your heartbeat. This comforts your baby and reinforces that you are still there responding to them.

    6. Remember it will get better

    Marie Louise says: ‘Your baby will sleep and it will get better.’

    On day two your baby’s tummy is only the size of a marble, so your colostrum – that’s your first milk – comes in small quantities to reflect that.

    The small stomach is why your baby will want to feed frequently on the second night. ‘It won’t always be like this,’ says Marie Louise. ‘By day 5 your baby will be needing about 60-80 mls after you milk has come in and if breastfeeding has got off to the right start, your body will produce that.’