By Maria Besini | June 10, 2020
Every time I start the consultation process with a family, one of the first things I investigate is the child's sleep environment.
The reason is simple. Small details and simple things can be a problem and even disrupt our child's sleep significantly. Therefore, by making only a few interventions, we can help our babies and toddlers to fall asleep easily and remain asleep for longer stretches, always taking into account their developmental maturity and temperament. You can create the ideal environment for sleep for your baby or toddler by examining the following factors one by one.
The following tips apply at any age, regardless of whether your baby or child is sleeping in your room or in a different room/nursery.
In general, most sleep scientists argue that a slightly cool room contributes to good sleep. This is because such an environment mimics the state of a body in sleep (the body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level during the night).
When it comes to children, research shows that a warmer sleeping environment leads to more awake time and lighter sleep at night, with awakenings happening more often.
Many parents wonder about their babies’ cool limbs. It is normal for a baby to have cool limbs because their circulatory system is still developing. However, it is best to check with your palm if his neck or abdomen is cool, because this is a more reliable indication that shows your baby is cold. Also, check if his skin is paler than usual, if he is fussing or sneezing or looks a bit lethargic. If any of the above situations apply then you should immediately warm up your baby.
If you discover your baby is sweating, he may be too hot, and you should remove layers of clothing or cool the environment more.
Babies lose their body temperature quickly and do not have the ability to self-regulate it like adults. Also, infants haven’t yet developed the skills to show us when they feel uncomfortable from the heat and we should always have in mind that overheating is considered dangerous as it can increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
The ideal level of humidity for our child's room or baby’s nursery ranges between 30% and 50%. A humidifier can provide relief if your baby suffers from a sore throat or dry nose, and a dehumidifier can remove excess humidity from the room and protect from mold growth and dust mites that can trigger allergy symptoms. The kind of device you choose to use, depends on various factors, such as the climate in your area, and the season (but remember to put a duct tape on any lights on the device. Keep reading to find out why).
2. Natural Light
First thing in the morning, make sure to open the curtains just before her normal waking hour. Gradually allow natural light enter her room. Exposing your baby to natural light (ideally outdoors) will help her regulate her sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythms), and will influence the release of hormones, including the “sleep hormone” melatonin. In fact, exposure to natural light is the most important factor, both for your child and for yourself, ensuring a good night's sleep, because it helps to calibrate the body’s internal “circadian” clock.
For the first few months we need to help our infant distinguish day from night, in order to regulate her circadian rhythms. Therefore, we have to keep the room relatively bright for naps, avoid artificial lights, and keep the room dark during the night.
Once our baby has learned to distinguish between day and night (after four months, when her inner clock is fully developed), then you can experiment with how bright or dark your child prefers her room to be during the day.
3. Artificial Light and Darkness
The only source of light you need during the child’s bedtime routine is a light of low intensity in the spectrum of red (see also 3.2.1 “melatonin”, in this article). A good alternative is incandescent bulbs. Avoid blue lights or LED lights in the evening. The light you choose to use should only remain on for as long as necessary to have a clear vision of the surroundings.
The same applies to all places where part of the bedtime routine is usually taking place (living room, bathroom) starting 2 hours before bedtime.
The reason is simple and scientifically proven by countless studies. The blue light from screens and the artificial lights we use in our home suppress the production of melatonin, and your child’s brain thinks it’s daytime.
The same advice applies to night wakings. If you need to get up in the middle of the night to pick up your baby, avoid turning on the lights because your baby might think it’s time to wake up and play. Instead, use a discrete nightlight in the spectrum of red.
For children over three years old and in cases where you cannot avoid partial exposure to screens and other artificial lights, you can purchase special glasses that block blue light from the environment, therefore avoiding the suppression of melatonin production.
Many studies show that sleeping at night is best done without the slightest source of light. Experts recommend complete darkness during the night and until dawn. If there are lights coming in from your child's window at night, install blackout curtains. Use duct tape to cover any devices that have lights, electronic clocks, and any other light source. You should try to keep the room, -where your baby / child sleeps-, completely dark. Unless of course the child seems to be annoyed or scared, in which case you should use a very low red light - below 10 lux - at night.
4. White Noises
White noises can work wonders for your baby's sleep. In most cases it seems to relax babies (especially newborns), as it mimics the sounds they heard for nine months in their mother's womb. At the same time, white noise covers external sounds which could possibly disturb your baby during his sleep, waking her up. You can install an application on your mobile phone or purchase a white noise machine. Just remember to set the volume to low, so that it doesn’t have the opposite effect. If your baby seems that she is not enjoying it or seems annoyed by those noises, turn it off. After all, we must always remember that every baby is different and has her own preferences.
White noise, when at a fairly low volume, is the only sound that can remain throughout the night without causing any problems in the baby's hearing or sleep. However, it is not recommended to use it extensively for a long period of time, as children risk getting dependent on it in order to fall asleep.
For older children, lullabies, can be an enjoyable part of the bedtime routine, in order to help them relax to sleep.
5. A Comfortable Space for the Parents/Caregivers
Our baby's nursery is a place where we usually spend a lot of time. And we should try to be consistent about putting the child to sleep in the same place for naps and bedtime. With that said, it is important that you feel comfortable in this space as well. Make a space that suits you, inspires you and creates a pleasant mood. A space that you enjoy being in. Your baby will share this feeling with you. She will feel it through you and relax with you.
I couldn't imagine my life without my rocking chair in my baby's nursery during the months I was breastfeeding him. Or the “cuddle corner” we created after he was one year old, where we both lay down, snuggling and reading books as part of our bedtime routine. If your baby is sleeping in your room and you have not yet moved him to a separate room, the same goes for you, too. Create a “relaxation space”, even if this is on your bed and you don't have space for a rocking chair.
6. See the world through your child’s eyes
Many times as adults we cannot perceive how our world looks like through our children’s eyes. Many things seem simple to us, usually because we have been exposed to them many times and of course because we are adults and we process the various stimuli around us differently. But are there any shadows that can confuse her? A curtain creating strange shapes? A weird pattern on the wallpaper?
In order to be able to see their own reality through the eyes of our children, we must try to get into their place for a while (literally). Try to see the world around us as if we were seeing it for the first time. Get in your child's crib and see what she sees when she lies down. If you find that something may be confusing to her or can make her feel upset or overwhelmed, remove it, change the way it looks, or even change the position of her crib in the room. Your child will appreciate it and show it by getting a better night's sleep.
7. Peaceful energy, love and connection
Children are the most powerful energy receivers. They feel almost automatically how we feel and are directly affected by it. If they sense us relaxed and happy they too feel happy and safe. And if they sense us stressed, anxious, nervous or sad, this can bring feelings of unsafety and does not help them relax and enjoy the connection.
Furthermore, when our baby enters this negatively charged energy field, she may automatically become more restless and fussy, and then this might affect us in again in turn making it really hard to relax and enjoy the connection with her. It becomes a vicious circle. Therefore, we should not overlook the energetic and emotional part, as lots of the most important moments in the early life of our child happen in this room. Let’s fill up those moments with positive energy and love that will help them relax and fall asleep peacefully.
Specifically during the bedtime routine, we need to make sure we are connected and that we focus our thoughts and energy on the present moment with our child. We relax our body, lower our voice and maintain a gentle flow of movements as we follow the steps of the predictable routine we have set. We synchronize with our child, in order to help him relax with us.
The process of breastfeeding, if you are a mother who breastfeeds, the steps of the bedtime routine, the play, etc. are moments of connection that both child and the parent/caregiver can enjoy.
If we figure out that our baby or toddler does not feel very familiar with her space, in order to help her create this sense of trust and familiarity with her crib and her room, we play with her inside her room, in various phases during the day, to create happy memories in that space. We can also play with our baby while she is in her crib, or we can play hide and seek around it; there are also many other kinds of games promoting crib and room acclimation for babies or toddlers.
8. Remove Toys
When preparing our baby’s nursery, it is good to keep in mind that when the time for the bedtime routine comes, toys should be stored away out of sight. Toys can be source of distraction and activation instead of the relaxation we desire to have before bedtime. So we need to have somewhere we can hide all the items whenever necessary. At the same time, we must make sure to keep the space tidy, so that we and our child can relax in it. For the same reason, select calming colors and “quiet” decoration for the nursery, because bright colors and too many toys may be over-stimulating for a sleep environment.
9. Avoid Toxic Materials (carpets, fabrics, paints, EMF)
Our baby's nursery should be cleaned frequently and ventilated on a daily basis. Babies have a very acute sense of smell. Make sure that your baby’s nursery or your toddler’s room doesn’t have pollutants of chemicals. Remember, that the only smell and taste your baby desires and needs is your body’s smell and taste. In this guide you can find some great tips about how you can create an environment free of toxic materials.
It is one of the things that we can easily miss and yet they play a very important role in our children's sleep.
10. Focus on Safety
Last, but certainly not least, we need to focus on creating a safe environment for our precious little one. For the first year, it is recommended that infants sleep in the same room with the parents/ caregivers for the prevention of SIDS. In addition, we need to make sure that we are aligned with all the recommendations for a safe infant sleep, such as putting infants to sleep on their back, on a firm surface, and using products that conform to the safety standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission of America (CPSC) or the European Commission. We make sure we are informed by reliable sources and follow the official and updated safety guidelines for SIDS prevention.
If we bed-share, we always follow the guidelines of safe bed-sharing. For example, it is necessary to know that we shouldn’t smoke and drink alcohol when we bed-share; it is also important to keep the baby lightly dressed.
When comes to older children, again, we should take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the toddler’s environment. For example, we should know what to do if she starts climbing off the cot, and which objects can become dangerous for a toddler when she is lying in her crib.
If you have not yet decided in which context you and your child prefer to sleep, this article can help you think about your alternatives. In any case, it is important to act proactively and not wait for our baby to master a skill before we take the necessary measures to protect her and secure her environment.
A bonus tip, and an easy one to remember, -is that when it comes to our baby’s or toddler’s sleep environment, there are two basic things to consider. First is how to make it safe and second how to make it satisfactory to all her five senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch).
I hope you found those tips useful and easy to implement in order to create your child’s sleep sanctuary.