Beware of the second night! If you’ve had a baby, or worked with a newborn, you’ll know what I mean. The first day with a new baby is often very sleepy and spent in a haze of post-birth euphoria and tiredness. That goes for babies too! Then, the second night lands and wham – your baby seems to wake up and want to party. This can be very confusing, and interpreting infant behaviour correctly at this point is really important.

Why do babies react this way?

It helps to consider what’s happened from your baby’s point of view. They’ve just spent several months curled up in a ball, tightly held, rocked, and cuddled. They have had constant temperature regulation, protection from loud sounds, bright lights and cold gusts of wind. They have also had 24/7 holding and unlimited access to nutrition. People often talk about the baby having continuous feeds via the umbilical cord – but personally I don’t think that’s it. What a lot of people forget is that babies are practicing swallowing for months before birth. They don’t need to ask for a swallow of amniotic fluid – they just do it. The amazing thing is that amniotic fluid tastes and smells very like colostrum – the first milk produced by the breast.

As someone who is interested in helping parents and professionals truly understand infant behaviour in order to support responsive parenting, I find this one feature of unborn babies fascinating. If amniotic fluid and colostrum smell and taste similar, then it’s one of the many reasons why babies seem to need to feed very frequently.

Of course, being in the crib, on a hard mattress, with bright lights, loud sounds, temperature fluctuations and having to ‘ask’ for a swallow of fluid is very different to the environment your baby had just 2 days ago. It never surprises me when babies want to be held constantly, cuddled, rocked and fed frequently. It’s usually referred to as the adaptation from womb to world. If you think about it from your baby’s point of view – the only familiarity they know is Mum. Being held close and fed frequently means they are replicating many of the features of their womb environment, which makes them feel safe.

What does the second night look like?

What most people find is that their baby needs to rest, sleep and hang out on the first day. It’s kind of a recuperation period for mothers and babies! As long as your full term healthy baby has had a feed soon after birth, and a few more feeds in the first 24 hours, then this sleepy period is fine.

Your baby will usually then ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ (or rather – the milk!). This is totally normal. However, how many parents-to-be have read that babies should feed, and then go down to sleep? That’s certainly not how most babies behave on the second night (or day!). More likely, they will be rooting around, wanting to feed often and possibly constantly.

The trouble with this (normal) behaviour is that if you’re not expecting it, or you expect the behaviours from the first day to continue, then this can really knock your confidence.

Often parents and professionals interpret frequent feeding and not settling for long periods between feeds as hunger, fussiness, or being a ‘high need’ baby. However, babies feed frequently for many reasons:

  • To adapt to life outside the womb
  • To stay hydrated and maintain blood sugar
  • Because they have tiny tummies
  • To connect and bond with their parents
  • To stay warm and feel safe

Second night wobble

Many mothers feel like if they have enough milk, their baby should settle between feeds. However, babies do not just feed because of hunger! I agree, if they did, then frequent feeding could be interpreted as a ‘hungry baby’ (one of my least favourite phrases!), but babies feed for several different reasons. If mums think – ‘oh my goodness, he wants another feed – he must still be hungry’ – then after several feeds, she can begin to really doubt her milk supply. However, if a mother thinks – ‘oh, look, he wants another feed. He must need a bit of a cuddle, or some reassurance’ – she is much less likely to have a confidence crisis. Watch this video for more information.

We have to get better at warning women about the second night (and beyond) because this is a major reason why women lose confidence in their milk supply and ability to breastfeed. Many a formula top up is given on day 2 not because the baby actually needs it for a medical reason, but because we are not great at explaining normal infant behaviour to mothers.

This is a failure of the system and society in my opinion. If more people knew what to expect, then this behaviour would be normalised, instead of pathologised.

What’s normal and what’s not?

It’s a good question! There is a danger of both over-simplifying and over-complicating! Second night behaviour is usually completely normal. The following signs are all reassuring. Check out this page for more information:

  • Baby is alert, active and waking for feeds
  • Baby is feeding frequently, and effectively (watch this video to see what effective feeding looks like)
  • Your baby has about 1 wet and 1 dirty nappy per day of age (so on day 2, two wet and dirty nappies)
  • Your baby is passing black/green/brown poop – there are some pictures here
  • Baby is warm, with normal colour skin

The following signs may indicate that your baby needs to be checked, or have their feeding reviewed:

  • Baby is very sleepy or jittery
  • Baby is having less than 8 feeds in 24 hours
  • Baby’s jaundice is getting more pronounced – check this website
  • Baby is not passing stool or wetting nappies
  • Baby is not feeding effectively
  • Your baby doesn’t settle even when being cuddled or fed

If you are concerned that your baby is NOT feeding well, then you could try the following strategies:

  1. Ask for support from a breastfeeding specialist – either a specialist midwife, breastfeeding counsellor or IBCLC
  2. Ask for help to hand express – here’s a video
  3. Keep your baby close to you, in skin to skin contact if possible
  4. Gather support from your partner, friends and relatives so that you can focus on breastfeeding
  5. Have your baby checked by a medical professional

Even if your baby does need some treatment – such as phototherapy for jaundice, or an admission to hospital for monitoring and feeding support, try not to panic! There’s a lot of information in my earlier blog on how to cope whilst your baby is in hospital or even if breastfeeding has gone wrong.

How to cope with the second night

Assuming that everything is fine with your baby, then you need to know some facts to get you through this! I know you’re tired, you’ve just given birth, you want a shower, some toast. All that. I absolutely get it. I promise you that there is a point to this very tiring stage of parenthood! You are NOT making a rod for your back! This is the time to gather support, remind yourself that this is a phase, and try the following tips which have helped many a mother get through the second night marathon:

  • Sleep whenever you can
  • Learn how to feed lying down (even if you do not bed-share, you can still feed lying down and then move your baby if you want to) – more here
  • Keep a basket of non-perishable snacks, such as cereal bars, nuts, dried fruit, cartons of juice and treats nearby, so you can snack whenever you feel hungry
  • Have painkillers on standby, in case you have stitches or afterpains (you don’t need to be a hero!)
  • Tell yourself constantly that this is normal, and will pass!

Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.