From birth to adolescence, sleep problems are among parents biggest concerns. Too much? Rarely! Too little? Often!
Hardly a month goes by when we don’t learn something new about the health benefits of a good night’s sleep. From prevention of obesity to improving immunity, from infantile colic to adolescent depression and anxiety, sleep is one of the most underappreciated aspects of children’s physical and mental health.
While it seems that the issues are so different at every age, there are a few common themes that run throughout the ages: light and dark, schedules and what your child associates with falling asleep.
I often like to look at kids through the lens of a “human biologist.” What would humans “in the wild” do? Babies come into our world not expecting electric lights that can “light up the night.” They come out ready to be programmed by the brightness of daylight and the darkness of night. I find that most babies start out sleeping more in the day and keeping their parents up for much of their first nights. What is the best way to “set their clocks”? “Show them the light!”
Bright morning light, whether it is placing your baby by the brightest window in the house or, better yet, a morning walk outside in the stroller can do wonders to a baby’s night time sleep, not to mention its mother’s. Keep the nighttime dark. Don’t let them think the sun is already up.
At the other end of the spectrum, light has become the bane of adolescent sleep. In the evening and early night, our brains produce a hormone called melatonin in response to fading light. Melatonin is your body’s tool to usher in sleepiness. Light is the enemy of melatonin. Sleep science is beginning to find that the light of screens, whether from a computer, a video game or even something as small as a smart phone, when shining directly into your eyes, tells your brain that it is still daytime. It prevents the brain from preparing for sleep. Add this to the already sleep depriving lifestyles that we have created for our teens and it is no wonder that one of the most common complaints for middle and high school students is fatigue.
And then there is texting! I recently spoke to a large group of middle school students. When I asked how many sleep with their cell phones, more than half of the hands went up. How many receive texts in the middle of the night? At least a third of the children said yes. (Most said their parents were unaware.) When I asked how many had trouble waking up in the morning— you guessed it—100%.
So, if you want to help your child get a good night’s sleep, show your infant the light of day and have the teens turn off the screens an hour before bedtime. Let the rhythm of nature set your clock.
Have a Good Night.