If you’ve ever dealt with 55 requests from a five-year-old (a glass of water? another hug? another story…?) that are all really just some version of “Mom, I can’t sleep,” you know how important getting kids to fall asleep quickly can be. Now, new research points to a major factor that could be keeping your little ones awake at night.
For years, experts have been telling us techie grown-ups to power down our devices a few hours before bedtime because blue light can disrupt our sleep. But the same advice is rarely given when you talk about kids. Guess what? It turns out they’re even more sensitive to bright light, and iPad games are just one part of the issue. Here’s what you need to know.
No matter their age, all humans have a biological (circadian) clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. If it’s working well, levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin go down during the day and rise at night, making you sleepy. Bright light is the signal that tells the body to stop making melatonin, so ideally the sunrise wakes you up, and the sunset puts you to bed.
Oh, if our modern lives were that simple, right?!
The problem is that now that we’re surrounded by artificial light, nighttime exposure can mess up that cycle, signaling the body to stop making melatonin and making it harder to fall asleep.
The new study found that effect is even more pronounced in children. According to The New York Times, researchers set up “low-light caves” for 10 children between three and five years old. In those rooms, their bodies naturally started secreting melatonin quickly. Another night, they had the children play on bright light tables, and found that exposure to that bright light “suppressed melatonin by almost 90 percent, and the effects persisted even after the kids returned to dim light.” Almost an hour after the light exposure, their melatonin levels were still not back to half of what they had been the night before in the dark.
The researchers said that they thought the effect was so intense because the lens that lets light into the eye is much clearer in small children. (Us old folks have been using ours for so long they get blurry.)
So, What To Do?
My kids are older now, and one of them grew up before the age of iPads and iPhones, but when they were both little, I often employed the “last show” tactic of putting them in front of the TV after their bath and before the rest of the bedtime routine to help them wind down. Oops. And now with laptops and phones in the mix, I’ve got to work harder to make sure that screens have a way earlier bedtime than my kids do. And because my high school senior and 8th grader use them to do schoolwork and study, sometimes that can feel impossible.
Nevertheless, if you want to get to bed quickly and asleep soundly (who doesn’t?), minimizing their exposure to all kinds of light— even TV— is essential. A few smart ways to do that?
1. No iPads in bed. No pre-sleep Insta scrolling for you; no pre-sleep Angry Birds for them. Resist the urge to give them a device to get them to stay under the covers. It will only make things worse.
2. Pay attention to night light placement. If your little one absolutely needs a night light, it should be as dim and low to the ground as possible. You don’t want the light reaching their little retinas when they’re in the bed.
3. Commit to mood lighting. This one is key: in the study, the researchers compared the light board they used to what happens when kids pop out of the bedroom to find you. If they open their bedroom door and are blasted with bright light, it’s back to square one. When they go to bed, dim the lights in the rest of the house, too.
4. Brighten their mornings. Bright light as soon as they wake up will set their internal clocks correctly for the rest of the day. So especially during winter when it may still be dark when they’re getting up for school, make the house as bright as possible from the get-go.
Do your kids have trouble falling asleep? What other techniques work for you?