Help Your Child Sleep Better Tonight:
How Outdoor Play Can Lead to Better Sleep

April 1    Written by Sophia Duhela

One of my favorite things to do is go outside with my 7-year-old and do a meditation together. We sit and soak up some sunshine and it is life-giving. On days my girls play outside quite a bit I know they’re going to crash and sleep so good that night.

Here’s an easy and THE most natural way to help your child sleep better tonight: get them outside!

You know after you’ve spent a day outside and you lay down in your bed at night, and you’re like, “Dang, I’m gonna sleep good tonight!” and then you do?! It’s the same for our children.

Since our circadian rhythm is largely directed by exposure to light and darkness, making sure you and your babies get outside during the day is the easiest and most natural way to regulate your rhythm, ensuring a good night’s sleep.

In this post, we’re going to get into the science behind circadian rhythm, how to optimize it (who doesn’t love a good biohack?!), and how active, outdoor play can lead to more sleep-filled nights for the whole family!

How Circadian Rhythm Works

Circadian rhythm begins to develop around 6 weeks old, when melatonin levels left over from the mom (maternal melatonin) begin to wear off. Good timing, right?!

By 12 weeks of age, your baby will have a fully developed rhythm, but it may not yet be optimized, especially if you’re still dealing with day and night confusion. If your baby is snoozin’ a lot during the day and up at night, this next part is for you.

Make sure you start to wake your baby at the same time each day. As soon as they’re up for the day, feed them in a well-lit area (natural light is best). When it’s nap time or night time, make sure the room they’re sleeping in is 100% dark.

If there is light streaming into the room in the early morning hours or during daytime sleep times (naps), it’s going to be harder for your little one to fall and stay asleep. When light enters the retina through the eyelid – even if the eyelid is closed – it signals to the brain to release cortisol, the hormone that wakes us us.

In total darkness, your little one won’t have to fight that cortisol release to fall and stay asleep. Even small lights on monitors, humidifiers, wipe warmers, etc. can cause awakenings at night and promote short naps. Use black electric tape to cover any small lights. Also make sure no light is streaming into the room from the edges of blackout curtains or from under the door.

When your little one is exposed to natural light in the morning hours, this sets up their rhythm for the day, resulting in the release of melatonin – the hormone that helps us fall asleep – in the evening, roughly 12 hours later after that initial light exposure.

Optimizing (Biohacking) Your Circadian Rhythm

As mentioned above, getting outside early in the morning hours is key to setting your rhythm for the day.

You can also eat during or after this initial sunlight exposure, as our digestion is also circadian driven. Ideally, you’ll want to make sure you’re eating all meals within an 8-12 hour window during the day, allowing your body to rest and digest at night. Children, who’s stomachs are smaller in size will need feedings more frequently, but once they’re able to sleep all night you can focus on getting all their caloric intake in during the 12 hours of daytime.

If you eat too late in the evening, your digestive system doesn’t have enough time to digest (and rest) before gearing up for another day.

In addition to getting outside in the early morning hours, you might want to try to get yourself and your little one outside when the sun is high in the sky (mid-day) and again in the evening, as it’s low in the sky or beginning to set.

It’s all about the angle! Circadian rhythm is largely directed by the angle of the light that enters the retina. So, when it’s low in the sky our body’s know it’s morning, when it’s high in the sky we know it’s mid-day, and when it’s low in the sky again, we know it’s evening. All of the appropriate hormones can be released at the appropriate times.

Active, Outdoor Play is the Key to Sleep-Filled Nights

Now that you know the biohacks of your circadian rhythm, you have a good idea of the times you and your little one should be trying to get outside each day.

Simply being outside during those optimal times will help their rhythm, but active outdoor play will also help them sleep better, expelling energy from the day.

As a sleep consultant, I especially recommend large motor play in the evening hours for toddlers and big kids. Running, jumping, going for a bike ride…all these activities will serve them well for a good night’s sleep!

If you can incorporate a family walk in the evening hours, you’ll be setting everyone in your house up for sleep success that night.

Happy playing, and happy sleeping!

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