The post below was originally published on Lighting Science Group’s “The Lab Blog” on October 17, 2016.
Sleep. New parents just can’t get enough of it. In fact, the average new parent loses about two hours of sleep a night until their baby hits 5 months and about one hour of sleep a night until their baby turns two. That’s an incredible 350 hours of sleep deprivation during baby’s first year alone! Is it any wonder that so many new parents feel like zombies?
As adults, our 24-hour circadian rhythm, or body clock, is influenced by daily exposure to cycles of light and dark. Waning light in the evening triggers production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, which makes us drowsy and helps us fall asleep at night. In the morning, sunlight triggers production of the hormone cortisol, which shuts down melatonin production and tells our bodies that it’s time to get going.
For babies, though, it’s a different story. It’s dark in the womb. Really dark. All the time. Infants do get time cues from their mothers while they are in utero, but for the first several months after birth, babies literally don’t know what time it is. It typically takes several months for their circadian rhythms to fully develop and for babies to begin to produce melatonin and cortisol on their own as a part of their natural melatonin circadian rhythm.
That’s why newborns sleep in seemingly random bouts of three or four hours, which is roughly the amount of time that it takes for them to feed, digest and get hungry again.
Fortunately, there are several easy steps that new parents can take to help set their baby’s body clock as quickly as possible and help their children establish healthy, life-long sleeping habits.
Tip #1: Get Some Sunlight
Although it won’t be fully developed for several months, your baby’s circadian rhythm begins developing within just a few days after birth. Studies show that babies who are exposed to natural light during the day sleep better at night and adapt to a 24-hour time cycle faster than those who are only exposed to artificial indoor lights. Simple steps like letting the morning sun into the nursery will help your baby eventually learn to distinguish between day and night.
Tip # 2: Get Active
Activity is another great way to establish healthy day and night cues. As adults, we’re typically much more active during the day than we are at night. So don’t bother tip-toeing around the house when your baby is young. Go ahead, run the dishwasher, listen to music and talk in your outdoor voice. By going about your day as normal, you will start to get your baby used to the idea that daytime is our active time—while night is for rest.
Tip #3: Dim the Lights
Sometime around the third month, babies begin to naturally produce their own melatonin. When this happens, light starts to have a much stronger influence on sleep and wake cycles. At this age, exposure to light in the evening will suppress your baby’s melatonin production—and make it more difficult for them to fall asleep. Nobody wants that, so for at least an hour before their evening bedtime, make sure to reduce your baby’s exposure to all light sources, including cell phones, TVs, computers—even night lights.
Tip #4: Establish a Sleep Routine
Establishing a regular feeding, activity and sleeping routine will make setting your baby’s biological clock much easier. Babies love routine. Love it. Remember: babies are still trying to make sense of the world, so they like to know exactly what is going to happen, in what order and when. Start establishing your newborn’s routine by doing the same thing, in the same order, every day. Eat, activity, sleep, repeat. Once they get the hang of that, start putting your baby down for naps and bedtime at the same time every day so that they get into the rhythm of feeling drowsy at that time.
Tip #5: Teach Your Baby to Self-Soothe
I learned this one the hard way. When my daughter was an infant, I had to practically do a Broadway show every night in order to get her to go to sleep. There was storytelling. There were lullabies. There was rocking. There were dance routines.
Then one night while at a friend’s house for dinner, she excused herself to put her baby to bed—and was back in about two minutes. What? I begged her for her secret, which as it turned out was very simple. Unlike me, she had taught her baby to self-sooth. At bedtime, she simply put him down in his crib, turned out the light and left him to relax himself. No muss, no fuss. A few years later when my son was born, I followed her cue—and it worked like a charm. He’s 14 now and has always been a great sleeper.
I’m not suggesting that it’s a bad thing to rock your baby or sing them a lullaby before putting them to bed at night, but what I am suggesting is that by putting them down when they are sleepy, but not yet asleep, you will teach your baby how to fall asleep by him or herself—which is a life-long gift.
Tip #6: Lights out at Night for Better Sleep
Once your baby is ready to fall asleep, turn off all light sources in their room. Contrary to popular belief, babies aren’t afraid of the dark. Remember, they just spent nine months happy and very contented in a nice, dark womb. It is actually healthiest for them to learn to sleep in complete darkness and will help them reach the most important sleep stage.
If you must have a light on in the nursery for things like a night feeding or diaper change, we have many night light options available, or try using a scientifically-engineered light, like the Sleepy Baby® Nursery Light, which filters out stimulating blue light spectrum. Although Sleepy Baby provides more than enough soothing, warm light for nighttime activities, it emits very limited amounts of blue light spectrum, so your baby’s brain will register the light as darkness. Ultimately, this will make it easier for both you and your baby to fall back asleep.
Tip #7: Be Consistent
We are all creatures of habit. Think about how cranky you get when you miss your workout or have to skip that morning cup of coffee.
Babies are no different. We’ve all seen exhausted, crying babies and their equally frustrated parents at the shopping mall, in the airport, or at a restaurant. When parents throw their baby a curve ball by trying to squeeze in that one final errand before naptime, it throws their still-developing circadian rhythms out of whack.
So, do yourself and your baby a favor—and stick to your routine. It won’t be convenient, but it will ultimately be worth it when they’re sleeping through the night—and so are you.
About the Author: Laura Calenda
Marketer, Mom, Home Renovator. Passionate about health, the environment and the power of light to positively impact people, plants, and animals. Laura recently joined Lighting Science as its new Senior Vice President of Marketing.
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