The Sleep Environment
Updated: Jan 19, 2020
The room environment is one of the most overlooked factors when looking at your baby's sleep patterns. It is not often thought of as something that would have an impact on your child's sleep. In my experience, the room environment has a huge impact on sleep quality and can be responsible for sleep disruptions that include:
** Fighting naps
** Fighting bedtime
** Taking short naps
** Waking up early in the morning (especially in the summer!)
** Frequent night wakings
According to Parenting Science, researchers say that the majority of infant sleep problems are caused by environmental factors. Starting early and looking at your child's sleep environment may help to prevent future sleep issues. After all, their sleep space is meant to make them feel safe, loved and secure.
Just like adults, babies like consistency, predictability and sleeping in locations that are free of overstimulating factors. One big difference between adults and infants is our responsiveness to external stimuli. What an infant finds stimulating might not even phase us as adults which can sometimes make us unaware of objects, sounds, and/or lights that are preventing our children from getting healthy amounts of sleep! In this post we are going to go over some common foundations that make up a healthy sleep environment and that can help your baby fall asleep and keep them asleep.
Once your baby goes through the 4 Month Sleep Shift their body responds to room environment factors differently. Now, your baby is producing their own sleep hormones and their sleep cycles consist of tiny breaks in the sleep cycle that are known as partial awakenings or regular brief awakenings. This means that at the end of each sleep cycle they briefly awaken to assess their surroundings and make sure all the environmental cues are consistent to how it was when they fell asleep at the beginning of that sleep period. This is good and normal! We want our babies to do this so that if they are hungry we can feed them or if something is wrong they can call out for us. Where we see disruptions is when it is room environment factors that cause them to wake-up when they may have slept another sleep cycle or two! Having a healthy and optimal room environment may lengthen out sleep spurts for you and your baby!
Here is what will help!
1. Consistent sleep space. Once your baby is 4 months old I like to encourage a consistent sleep space when at home. Of course, there will be times when sleep is on the go or in another location, but when you are at home having a consistent sleep space for both naps and nights can help set up predictability. This space begins to act like a sleep cue that tells your baby that they will be sleeping soon.
2. Have a dark room - Our sleep hormone, Melatonin, is greatly influenced by light levels. When the brain is detecting light stimulation it triggers the suppression of Melatonin. Darkness, on the other hand, encourages Melatonin production. It is not just a coincidence that we prefer to sleep when it is dark and be awake with the sun. Dark surroundings signal "sleep" to our brain and bright surroundings tell our body that "it's time to be awake!"
- Have the room dark enough that if you extend your arm straight out in front of you, you won't be able to see your hand or can barley see it.
- Cover any monitor lights with tape.
- Remove stimulating lights from machines or toys in the room.
- Turn on a soft light or light in the hall when feeding your baby at night to keep it as dim as possible. Turn it off after the feed to help you go back to sleep also.
3. Have an optimal temperature. As our body prepares for sleep we get a natural decrease in core body temperature. This is a vital signal that the body gives for a sleep cycle to start within our Circadian Rhythm. The core body temperature decreases and remains low during sleep. It then rises again in the early morning hours to help signal the body to wake-up and start another day. Room temperatures can impact this process and therefore impact the bodies ability to fall asleep if interupting this natural process.
The National Sleep Foundation suggests that for infants and children the optimal room temperature is 18 Degrees Celsius (65 F) to 22 Degrees Celsius (70-71 F). Having your baby dressed in thin footed pajamas with a regular fabric sleep sack is perfect in these room temperatures.
MYTH: I know that the nursery is too cold because my baby's hands and feet are freezing!
In adults temperature is regulated through our heads, hands, and feet but this is not the same for infants. Infants may often feel like they have cold hands and/or feet even if they are wrapped tightly in a blanket. If you are wanting to know if your child is too hot or too cold place your hands on the back of their neck or in between their shoulder blades. Here you will be able to get a better idea of their approximate body temperature. If they are sweating or feel hot to touch then they are too hot!
4. Use white noise - White noise is my favorite sleep tool. White noise is a great tool to help set up environmental consistency that helps the room and all of the cues feel consistent when your baby comes into their partial awakening. They briefly awaken, hear the sound that was playing when they fell asleep, and can feel safe to drift off into the next sleep cycle. As your baby gets older and his biological rhythms become more developed the white noise allows them to go from one sleep cycle into another without noticing any disturbances around them. Dogs barking, garbage trucks, snow plows, thunder and diesel trucks are all examples of sounds that can be disturbing to restful sleep.
Many families use white noise and find that it doesn't make a difference. There are skey factors to consider when aiming to get the most out of your noise machine!
- Use a sound that is continuous. This means that the sound DOES NOT turn off on a timer. You turn the noise on during the bedtime routine and turn it off when your baby wakes after the sleep period.
- Use a sound that is constant. We want the tone to stay the same such as heavy rainfall, vacuum or white noise versus waves, lullabies or jungle safari.
- Have it loud enough to block out external noises. Go into the room, turn on the noise and shut the door. You shouldn't be able to hear noises going on outside of that room.
5. Aim for non-stimulating decor - Essentially, we want the room to be dark enough that you can't see anything in the room! But, if that isn't possible then it can be really easy to overlook the possibility that some of the items that we choose for decor are too stimulating and can also be a disturbance to our child's sleep.
Here are some things to consider when choosing decor:
- Choose a paint color that is light and calm. Bright colors can be distracting and they can often reflect any bit of light that may be in the room.
- Avoid using a mobile. Mobiles are a focal point and it can be very difficult for an infant to fall asleep without becoming overstimulated by looking at this. If you would like a mobile for the sound factor then possibly consider another form of white noise. Often mobiles turn off after a time period which will trigger that late night wake up.
** If your room is dark enough then a mobile doesn't matter and can be a nice piece for positive play in the crib.
- When hanging posters, pictures, or murals on the wall try and keep them out of the infant’s line of vision. These often contain high contrast colors which are very distracting to children of all ages. Place these items in areas of the room that the child will not be directly looking at from his crib.
- When using a baby monitor, place the monitor in a place where the red, blue, or green light from the monitor is not in front of the babies face. If a child wakes in the night and sees this light it will be hard for them to fall back asleep. This light is now their new interest preventing them from being able to fall back asleep on their own.
All of the above factors are taken into consideration when structuring foundations for good sleep. Starting early and implementing these factors can help reduce sleep issues from happening in the future. It is important to take into account everything that may be influencing your child’s sleep before jumping straight in to any sleep training. By using the above suggestions you may be able to improve sleep in your home without having to do anything else. I hope the above can help you and your family obtain the healthy sleep that they deserve.
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