Sleep and the bedroom environment

We all want our child’s bedroom to a place that they can enjoy being, with stimulating toys and nice furniture. But if your child is experiencing difficulties sleeping, it is often useful to look at whether as well as a great place to spend play time, it is also an environment that helps them to prepare for sleep. In doing this there are some key questions.

  • Is it dark enough?
  • Is it quiet enough?
  • Is it comfortable?
  • Is it calming enough?

To understand why a bedroom needs to be dark, we need to understand that human beings have evolved as  diurnal creatures, which means that we are naturally programmed to be outdoors during daylight hours and at home in the dark, asleep, at night. When our brain senses that darkness is falling, it begins to convert the brain chemical and natural stimulant serotonin into the sleep hormone melatonin which signals to us that it is time to  sleep. If a child’s bedroom is too light it can delay this production of melatonin – making it harder for them to settle. The ideal, therefore, is for a child to get used to, from an early age, having a bedroom that is completely dark. In many cases, however, a child wants the comfort of a nightlight – but this should be as small and dim as possible so as not to keep their brain in daytime mode. Blackout curtain-linings can also be very useful in the summer months and extend the whole family’s night by a few precious hours!

Of course not every bedroom can be silent – and indeed, the gentle noises of other family members moving around the house, the background hum of the washing machine or of distant traffic can be comforting to a child dropping off to sleep. Families where babies learn to settle in an environment where normal quiet, household noise continues when baby is put to bed find that find that this becomes a useful pattern for their sleeping habits later on.  But too much noise – especially noise associated with daytime stimulation such as loud television/ music or sudden disturbing banging of doors can make it hard for a child to settle and be disruptive to their sleep. Sometimes, if they have a pet in their bedroom – especially a hamster with a wheel, their nocturnal activities can contribute greatly to a child’s wakefulness. Small modifications in this area can often have big pay-offs.

We have almost all experienced – often on holiday but occasionally in this country – the heat keeping us awake and indeed, the temperature of a bedroom greatly affects the quality of our sleep. Most people find that they sleep best in a slightly cooler room with a window slightly open for fresh air; but this has to be balanced against any noise from outside. It is also important that the room is not too cold and that bedding is adequate for the time of year. Climbing into a bed that is made – rather than one left over from the morning rush – can also send a powerful signal as part of a bedtime routine that this is a place prepared for sleep.

When an adult goes to the doctor with difficulties sleeping, the doctor will often talk to them about something called ‘sleep hygiene’ – their habits around sleeping. They would often be advised, for example, to ensure that the bedroom is a place reserved solely for sleeping so that the brain begins to build the pattern that when it goes bed that is what it is expected to do. Now, obviously, children’s bedrooms often serve the function of a playroom too and so to remove all other stimuli from them would be completely impractical. But parents do often find it helpful if they and their child get into the habit of ‘packing away the day’ as part of the bedtime routine. By putting games away in cupboards and turning the lights down low for a story the environment signals that something different and more restful is now expected.