by Whitney Westenberg
Sleep Consultant and founder of You Sleep We Sleep
One of the biggest things that drove me to become a certified sleep consultant is/was the
science behind sleep! FYI - everything here at YSWS is data driven, rooted in scientific evidence, and focused on the human biology of sleep!
If you aren’t familiar with this diagram - don’t worry…neither was I!
This my friends is MELATONIN! I’m assuming most of my readers aren’t scientists, and are reading this is the wee hours of the morning, so I will keep my explanation as simple as possible!
If you don’t already know, Melatonin is something our body naturally produces. It’s a hormone, released by the pineal gland in response to darkness. It’s an antioxidant, which can help our body rid itself of free radicals. Most interestingly, it’s referred to commonly as the “circadian glue” - melatonin is largely responsible for holding together our sleep and wake cycles.
One of my favourite sleep gurus, Matthew Walker, refers to melatonin as “the hormone of darkness” or “the vampire hormone” - sound scary right? But Walker is just referring to the fact that Melatonin is produced at night…or when it’s dark (key word being dark here, I will touch on this again).
Melatonin, although powerful, isn’t solely responsible for getting us to sleep. Something called “sleep pressure” and the hormone Adenosine also play a big role, but I will touch on this in an upcoming blog!
It can take newborns up to 12 weeks to develop their circadian rhythm. Babies actually don’t start to regulate their own melatonin production until about 3-4 months of age (this also plays a role in the 4 month sleep regression…again, another blog topic)! SO, it’s important to (guess what) expose them to natural light during their wake windows, and make things dark during sleeps, to help them naturally develop their internal clocks.
Our natural melatonin levels are fairly low during the day, start to rise in the evening, peak between 2 and 4 am, and then significantly start to drop. It’s pretty common that little ones start to wake in these early hours (between 4 and 7am) because of this drop in melatonin! As adults, we have essentially “trained” ourselves to sleep through this natural occurrence, but kids have yet to master this —> so, if your little one is waking after this 4 am mark, my best tip is to treat it as any other ‘middle of the night waking’ until your desired wake time.
In order to help your little one regulate their melatonin levels, you can try :
Black-out-shades - this will help block out sunlight in your LO’s sleep environment. Melatonin production can come to a hault, if any light is coming into your child’s room, especially during those early morning hours. Once light comes into your kiddos eyes (even THROUGH their eyelids), the brain starts telling the body ‘hey, it’s time to wake up!’. This is why I stress about keeping a dark sleep environment, when working on sleep…especially for naps and if we are combating early morning wakings (also something I will touch on in another blog!)
Less Screentime - screen time is ok in moderation, I would just make a cut-off 2 hrs prior to bed
Blue light - LEDs, Tablets, smartphones, TV’s, night lights - they all emit blue light and can inhibit melatonin production - I would keep these items out of the sleep environment (if you do need to use a night light, make sure it has an amber toned bulb)
Keeping a regular daily schedule - waking up and going to bed the same time everyday will help create natural cycles of sleep
Adding certain foods - check out the below image for foods that are high in naturally
occurring melatonin! Just FYI, until recently, it was stated that tart cherry juice contained high levels of naturally occurring melatonin - but it has been recently discovered that this research was largely paid for by the cherry industry. Also, the amount of sugar in cherry juice might counteract your child’s sleep drive in the evening, so I wouldn’t recommend giving it close to bedtime!
if you can, breastfeed or offer breast milk - for my nursing or pumping moms, your breast milk actually contains melatonin - studies have found higher melatonin levels in breast milk in the evening - a great reason to make sure baby is taking in a full feed before bedtime
Reduce stress - cortisol is a melatonin killer….its nemesis, if you will! So make sure you are showing up for your child emotionally during the day - put a calm, relaxing bedtime routine into place, give them lots of cuddles…and remember, your kiddo probably is not yet a master of regulating their own emotions - lead by example and do your best to remain calm during meltdowns
Exposure to natural light through our eyes is how our body starts to synthesize Melatonin (even through our eyelids, when they are shut). Studies have even shown, that individuals who went outside and got morning light (before 12 am) showed significant increases in sleep quality - a great reason to get outside WITH your little ones before lunch time. This is also probably why I am the only one at the playground at 9:30 am, lol ! I would also recommend wrapping up any outside play 1-2 hours before bedtime, to give your kiddos body a little time to adjust - if you are playing outside for too long…you could really just be chasing away melatonin, and that’s something we definitely DON’T want!
If you are struggling with your LO’s sleep, I would strongly recommend going through the bullet points in this blog and seeing what you can change/implement! However, if you have done ‘all the things’ and are still struggling, it’s high time we chatted!
Click here to book your free 15 minute consultation and let’s get sleep back on track in your household!
As a certified sleep consultant, I can help you pinpoint your child’s sleep needs and issues.
I hope this has inspired you to get outside more with your kids! Good luck and sleep well my friends!
*** Please note the contents of this blog are not medical advice! Please consult your pediatrician if you have concerns regarding prolonged problems with your child's sleep. Please consult a doctor before giving your child melatonin supplements***