Toys scattered on the floor. Streetlights shining through the window. Bright stripes on the walls. And an iPad on the nightstand.
Could these be the real reasons why your child isn’t sleeping well?
Changing your child’s bedroom environment isn’t a cure-all for sleep problems -- but if your child is struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, just a few small adjustments in her sleeping space could make a big difference.
It’s easy to think that bedtime troubles are a discipline issue or a physiological problem, but the truth is, sometimes they’re as simple as the design of your child’s bedroom. Clutter, lighting, and temperature can have a significant effect on how well your child is sleeping. Try these small adjustments to see if a few changes can make a big difference.
- Turn down the temperature. One simple solution is as easy as adjusting your thermostat. The hormone that causes sleepiness, melatonin, is correlated with a drop in core body temperature, and when the temperature goes down, that signals your child’s brain to start producing melatonin, causing her to feel sleepy. What’s more, keeping the temperature down at night can also help your child sleep more deeply. Make a habit of turning the thermostat down every evening an hour before bedtime, and you may find it makes a big difference in how well your child sleeps.
- Turn on the white noise. Are sudden noises during the night disturbing your child’s sleep? White noise can help. When sounds disturb sleep, it’s because of a change in sound. And for sensitive sleepers, even something as quiet as the a/c fan turning on can interrupt sleep. White noise provides a continual stream of unchanging sound that covers up any changes in sounds, so they don’t wake your child up. However, white noise can also be annoying for some people, since it contains frequencies across the wavelength spectrum, including high-pitched sounds. If your child is disturbed by nighttime sounds but doesn’t like white noise, consider trying different “colors” of continual sound. Many sound machines offer options like “pink noise” or “violet noise,” which use different frequencies. One study of older adults found that pink noise might do the most to improve slow brain waves during deep sleep, but ultimately, the frequency of sound that will work best for your child is the one she prefers the most.
- Add light-blocking curtains. If your child is having trouble falling asleep or waking up every morning with the sun, light could be the culprit. And it’s not just sunlight that disturbs sleep -- street lights or the porch light could have an equally detrimental effect on your child’s sleep. Try adding some light-blocking curtains to see whether darkness can be your friend. Just make sure the curtains you choose are truly light-blocking, since many that are sold as light-blocking won’t really make the room completely dark. Then, make a habit of pulling the curtains all the way closed at bedtime to ensure your child has a pleasantly dark room to sleep in.
- Move screens out. You probably know that the light from a screen can affect your child’s sleep. The light from the screen has the same effect as sunlight on the brain, telling your child’s body that it’s daytime and she needs to wake up. However, you may not realize that the light from the screen isn’t all you need to worry about. Even with her phone turned facedown on her nightstand, the beeping from notifications (or even the vibration from a silenced phone) can affect sleep. And for older kids, the temptation of a phone on the nightstand can be hard to resist. Your best bet is to move the phone out of her bedroom entirely, where it’ll be out of sight and out of mind until morning.
- Turn off the lights. You’ve closed the curtains and moved out the screens, but could light still be impacting your child’s sleep? For a sensitive sleeper, even something as mild as a nightlight or the crack of light around the door could impact sleep. If possible, try turning the light off in the hallway as well as your child’s room. If she’s nervous in an entirely darkened room and wants a nightlight, consider adding a blue light filter to make the light warmer, so it’s not as bright and has less of an impact on sleep.
- Unclutter the toys. Is your child’s bedroom a haven of clutter for disorganized toys? It may seem like your child couldn’t care less whether her room is clean, but there’s some evidence that a messy room can contribute to poor sleep. Looking at toys as she’s falling asleep can distract her, and the sight of unfinished homework or school projects can have an even worse effect. Try moving as many toys as you can out of her room. Set up a playroom elsewhere in the house, or put some in a storage space and only keep a few favorites in her room. You might find that without the distraction of activities in her room, her bedroom can become a haven where it’s easier for her to fall asleep.
- Reduce environmental allergens. Even if your child hasn’t been diagnosed with allergies, the environment in her room could impact her sleep. Bedroom hazards like dust mites and airborne pollen can cause a stuffy nose and sneezing, which can interrupt sleep and make it less restful. Make sure you’re washing her sheets and blankets regularly, and cover the bed and pillows with allergen-proof covers. Then, change the filter in your air conditioning to make sure it’s removing particles from the air of your home. You may find that better breathing leads to better sleep.
- Paint the room blue. Are you redecorating your child’s room? One study found that a muted blue is the color most conducive to sleep. Psychologists theorize that blue makes people feel more calm, possibly because of its association with the ocean and the sky. However, if your child is set on a different color, encourage her to opt for muted, cooler colors for her walls instead of warm, bright ones. Brightly colored walls can be energizing, which is detrimental to sleep. Dark colors, however, will help make the room darker at night, so if she really wants a standout color, try dark green or dark blue as a compromise.
- Create a nest. When your child was a baby, you kept her crib free of blankets or pillows for safety reasons. But now that she’s well past the danger of nighttime SIDS, it’s okay to fluff up her bed -- and it might even improve her sleep. Especially for kids who struggle with sensory disorders, putting more in her bed can actually help her sleep better. Try adding some full-length body pillows to line her bed, so she can feel surrounded when she snuggles in. A weighted blanket can do wonders to help her relax and lie still at night.
- Add plants. There’s nothing living in your child’s room? Try adding a plant in the corner! Plants improve air quality by filtering allergens from the air, sometimes more effectively than the best conventional filters. There’s also some evidence that having plants in your house can help reduce anxiety and stress. Bonus: you can put your child in charge of plant care, giving her an opportunity to exercise responsibility in her own space.
If you’re changing up your child’s room, be aware that the positive effect might not happen right away. In fact, any changes you make in your child’s room could trigger worse sleep at first -- but only for one night. That’s because significant changes will make your child’s room feel like a new environment. But after one night of adjustment, you should see much better sleep.