Enjoy the Outdoors!
Exploring the outdoors is one of children’s favorite things to do. Even if they are too young to walk, crawl, or shimmy around they still love being outside. There is something to be said about nature and how it really does cleanse the soul and help the body relax…well except for when the lawn needs to be mowed!!
Additionally, being outside can encourage better sleep. I know I have talked about light exposure previously but I wanted to talk in a little bit more detail about this because it is one of the biggest factors right from early infancy and into adulthood that will help to regulate a healthy and effective sleep cycle.
How Does This Work? (The boring part)
Sleep is controlled by our body's biological clock known as the “Circadian Clock.” This clock which controls your sleep-wake cycle over a 24 hour period uses daylight to synchronize itself. The Circadian Clock or Circadian Rhythm uses light to signal to the body to release Cortisol, a hormone that keeps us awake, and uses darkness to signal the body to release Melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. The light is communicated through light sensitive cells in our eyes. These cells then tell the brain whether it is daytime or nighttime and sleep patterns are set accordingly.
Using natural light to “set” our sleep-wake cycles is very beneficial. Exposure to natural light in the early morning and afternoon can signal to our bodies that it is time to be awake. Using dim lights and more relaxed environments in the evening can trigger our bodies to slip into sleepy mode therefore making sleep time much easier. The opposite however is also true, exposure to light in the late evenings tends to delay our sleepy cues therefore keeping us awake longer and not having exposure to light in the mornings can prevent us from waking at an acceptable time. In other words, we rely on sunshine to balance our day.
Using Light to Improve Your Child’s Sleep
When the baby is in the womb he/she is not exposed to any bright light and so their internal Circadian Clock is out of sync with the natural 24 hour rhythm that we experience on a daily basis. Once the baby is born they prefer darker environments much like that of the womb. Around 12 weeks of age, sometimes a little longer, infants begin to develop a hormonally-driven sleep cycle. This means that around this age your baby will now be producing hormones that signal his or her brain to either be awake or go to sleep. Now is the best time to begin introducing light exposure into your daily routine to help tune his/her internal Circadian Clock.
Times when you want your baby awake you will want to expose them to natural light. This will help establish the wake time pattern. The ideal time to boost the Circadian Clock is within the first two to three hours after an individual wakes up but early afternoon exposure is beneficial as well. Times when you want your baby to be asleep such as for naps and night sleep, you will reduce light exposure and keep them in dim and dark areas. Of course when your baby is still very young they will take numerous naps throughout the day until they are a bit older. We can still use light to establish a healthy pattern within his/her sleep requirements. For example, if you want your child to be sleeping for their morning nap at 9:30 then starting at about 9:00 reduce the light exposure and initiate quiet play in a dimly lit room. This will help prepare the body for the nap that is about to occur so that the nap becomes more natural. Another example is if you are finding that your child is sleeping too long in the morning which is causing for too late of a bedtime and frequent night wakings then you can try waking him/her up just a little bit earlier (15 minutes at a time) and taking them outside to allow the natural light to help establish a new pattern!
For infants that still experience night feedings it is important to take into consideration the above factors. Although we are talking mostly about outside light exposure, indoor light exposure can also affect the sleep-wake cycle just not as much. You still want to be conscious of this when responding to your child in the night. Try and keep the lights turned off when going in to them. If you can turn the hall light on or a small night light versus the big light this will help keep the child in sleep mode. You don’t want to risk turning on a light and your child’s body getting mixed signals and thinking it is now time to be awake.
If you have an older child you can still use light exposure as part of your routine. Remember light exposure helps even adults! They may take longer to calm down after a busy day of playing so before bed try and have them in a dimly lit environment starting about 45 minutes before you want them asleep. This will help establish a nice bedtime routine and help them be ready for sleep.
One major concern is weather!! Here in Alberta conditions are usually less than favorable for the recommended early morning light exposure. If it is not a good day to go outside then exposure through a window can still be effective. It won’t have quite the same effect but it is still worth it on those bad days or days when your child is under the weather. On days when you can try and get outside in the morning. It is the perfect time for them to “wake-up” and allows you a few minutes to enjoy your coffee!
Tips for Sunlight & Baby Sleep
Ensure your baby gets 30 minutes to 1 hour of outside light per day either indirect or direct.
If direct please ensure that they are protected by sunscreen, a hat, appropriate clothing, and shade (shade is still direct light).
Indirect light is also effective and should include more than 30 minutes per day…a bright window can work.
To determine if your baby is waking up before getting a good nights rest then assess their behavior throughout the day.Moodiness is a great indicator that they need more light to trigger a healthy sleep pattern.