Summertime! The weather’s warm, the days are long and everyone looks forward to a season of fun in the sun.
Unfortunately, seasonal changes can impact our biological rhythms and have a negative impact on sleep. Longer daylight hours can push bedtimes later and later, the summer heat can make sleeping uncomfortable, and family activities and travel can make it especially challenging to keep healthy sleep schedules in place for our kids.
So how can you make the most of what summer has to offer AND keep your family happy and well rested?
Here are my top tips for healthy summer sleep.
Make sleep a priority. Lack of quality sleep is linked to impaired growth and development, behavioral issues at home and at school, ADD and ADHD, obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and a host of other health problems. Know how much sleep your child needs. If you’re not sure, check the chart here. Every child is different, but most kids don’t veer from the averages on the chart by more than an hour. Respect your child’s need for sleep and do what you can to make sure they get what they need every day.
Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at around the same time every day helps to keep biological wake-sleep rhythms on track – and that promotes quality sleep. Skipping a nap now and then or delaying bedtime because of a special occasion may not have an impact on a well-rested child, but even the best sleepers have trouble tolerating erratic schedules. Don’t let bedtimes drift later and later, don’t make a habit out of delaying or skipping naps. Know your child’s tolerance, and keep that in mind as you plan the day.
Limit exposure to light in the evening. Our body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock, tells us when to be awake and when to be asleep. Darkness triggers our bodies to produce melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. Because summer days are long, it may still be light out when it’s time for your child to sleep, so invest in room darkening shades for your child’s bedroom and pull them down 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime to encourage the production of melatonin. Make sure that they cover the entire window so that light can’t sneak in through the sides, or hang curtains over the blinds for an extra barrier for light. Be sure also that your child avoids TV, smartphones and other screens for the last hour before bed. Exposure to blue light is especially disruptive to production of melatonin.
Expose your child to natural light during the day. Just as exposure to light at the wrong time can interfere with sleep, exposure to light at the right time of day can actually help sleep by reinforcing the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Studies suggest that exposing your child to natural light during the day can help them to sleep better at night.
Studies also indicate that Vitamin D may influence sleep quality and sleep quantity, and a powerful source of vitamin D is the sun. (The sun doesn’t create vitamin D. It converts the vitamin D in your skin to a usable form). Although many children have enough exposure to the sun just by going about their daily activities, some children’s exposure is very limited, not only because they spend so much time indoors, but because they wear sunscreen whenever they head outdoors. Of course it’s important to use sunscreen to protect our children’s skin from harmful rays, but 10 or 15 minutes of sunlight on the skin at off peak hours can help to maintain healthy Vitamin D levels without the need for supplements.
Keep the room cool at night. When it’s time for sleep our core body temperature decreases by one to two degrees (a dip that some researchers believe is the body’s way of conserving energy for other functions that would normally be spent on maintaining our regular body temperature). That means that things that interfere with that natural dip can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep until morning when our body temperature naturally begins to rise again. Although there is some disagreement about the exact perfect room temperature for sleep, most experts agree that between 65 and 68 degrees is the optimal temperature range to promote sleep. On hot days, use fans and air conditioners to regulate the temperature in your child’s bedroom, and adjust their bedding and sleepwear to light, breathable fabrics like cotton and linen.
When planning a trip, think about making your child’s temporary bed or crib as sleep-friendly as possible. If you’re staying in a hotel, inquire about the availability of portable cribs, “pack-n-plays” or roll-away cots. Bring along familiar items like sheets or favorite blankets and pillows to help your child feel comfortable. Don’t forget a night light, bedtime books and music. If you’re traveling by air, pack them in your carry-on bag. You’ll need them handy if checked baggage is delayed or lost. You might also want to bring a monitor on the trip so that you can listen in on your sleeping child while enjoying your grown up evening in another nearby room.
- When traveling, consider planning your driving times to coincide with nap time. Napping in the car isn’t ideal, but it can help fill up your child’s “sleep tank” before a flight and ward off an over-tired meltdown on the plane.
- Consider placing a roll-away mattress on the floor of the hotel room to avoid middle of the night tumbles.
- Are you staying with relatives? Ask them for help in locating a borrowed crib or pack and play. (Be sure they are sturdy, newer models, as older cribs may pose safety risks). If you visit frequently or there are other family members who visit with their children, consider purchasing a crib, splitting the cost and keeping it there. It can be a great investment and make life much simpler.
- If you share a room or bed with your child on vacation, follow safety guidelines regarding infants, and be clear with older children that the arrangement is temporary.
- Keep your child’s bedtime routine as similar as possible. A consistent routine cues the brain that it’s time for sleep.
Time Zone Changes
Changing time zones can be difficult for children (and adults, too!). Here are some tips to help your child adjust to the new time.
- When you arrive at your destination, try to switch your child’s eating and sleeping schedule to the new time as quickly as possible. This may mean getting your child up from naps early or waking him up in the morning, even if he went to bed late the night before. Watch your child’s sleepy cues and be prepared to nap them more often as they adjust to the new time.
- Expose your child to daylight during appropriate awake times to help their body adjust more quickly.
- Flights that arrive in the afternoon and time changes of less than three hours usually make for an easier adjustment.
Sweet dreams, and have a great summer!
Alison Bevan – Sleepytime Coach
Pediatric Sleep Consultant – The Center for Advanced Pediatrics