Creating an Ideal Sleep Environment for Your Baby [a.k.a. The Baby Cave]

As October is SIDS Awareness Month, I wanted to write a post not only detailing what an ideal sleep environment for baby would be in terms of helping to promote quality sleep, but also ways that parents can achieve this while also making sure baby is safe. SIDS rates in Canada have fallen in recent decades and awareness and education is key.

Below, I will discuss the 3 main components that make up an ideal sleep environment for baby, and some tips to help ensure we have a safe environment for our little nuggets as well.

Baby Cave Component #1 - Temperature

The temperature in baby's room is an important factor for several different reasons. First and foremost, a cooler room for baby = better quality sleep. Over a 24 hour period, our body temperatures naturally peak and decline. Our internal temperature is usually at its highest in the early afternoon and lowest around 5:00am. When we fall asleep, our bodies naturally cool off. Helping baby's body get to that lower temperature faster can encourage deeper sleep. It can also help baby fall asleep quicker. If we provide an environment for our baby's body to fall asleep more comfortably, it will do so in a faster manner. If it’s too hot or too cold, baby's body will waste energy trying to regulate, making it harder for baby to fall asleep and stay asleep. So what is the ideal temperature for optimal sleep? We are aiming for somewhere in the neighborhood of 68-72°/19-21°. If you live in a house that is difficult to control the temperature and it is tough to achieve a room temperature in this range, dressing baby for the temperature is your next best option. Check out my chart here for what to dress baby in for varying room temperatures.

The next important reason for being aware of the temperature in baby's room is to reduce the risk of overheating. Interestingly enough, the risk of SIDS is higher in the colder months as caregivers tend to bundle baby up excessively by placing extra blankets [try a sleepsack instead!] or clothes to keep them warm. But over bundling may cause infants to overheat, increasing their risk for SIDS. Your baby should never feel hot to the touch - if you feel baby's chest or abdomen and it is hot or sweaty, we need to remove a layer of clothing or lower the room temperature. 

Baby Cave Component #2 - Darkness Level

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It's tough to stress how much a dark space for baby can transform their sleep. Many parents fear by creating this ideal sleep environment, we are only conditioning baby to be a finicky sleeper, but it could not be further from the truth. An ideal sleep environment helps cultivate a good sleeper, and good sleepers are adaptable. Parents may report that their children have a bit of a tougher time sleeping in a new sleep environment when it is not dark [say, at daycare] but this is likely more closely related to the fact that it's a new and different sleep environment than the fact that it's not as dark as they are used to at home. While these children may go through a period of adjustment [just like any child would!] they are no worse off than a child who may have become accustomed to sleeping in a bright room at home. Why does a dark room make such a difference?

  • Quality of sleep: the quality of sleep is much higher in a room that is cool and the quality of sleep is almost much higher in a room that is dark. Darkness is essential to sleep. The absence of light sends a critical signal to a child's body that it is time to rest. Light exposure at the wrong times alters the body's internal "sleep clock" in ways that interfere with both the quantity and quality of sleep. Melatonin, often known as the "sleepy hormone" or the "vampire hormone" influences sleep by sending a signal to the brain that it is time for rest. This signal helps initiate baby's body's preparations for sleep—muscles begin to relax, feelings of drowsiness increase, body temperature drops - but melatonin is only produced when it is dark. Light exposure inhibits the naturally timed rise of melatonin, which delays the onset of the transition to sleep and sleep itself. So baby may be able to fall asleep eventually, but the onset of sleep is more challenging and the quality of the resulting sleep would be lower.
     
  • Overstimulation: as we all know, babies [and older kids as well!] are very easily overstimulated. Overstimulation happens when a child is swamped by more experiences, sensations, noise, and activity than he or she can cope with. A stimulating environment is important for our children to play in as it helps them learn and grow, but children also need downtime and the opportunity to spend time in a calm and stimulation-free environment. One big source of stimulation is light, but luckily it's also something that we can control especially at sleep times. By blocking out this stimulation when our babies are trying to sleep, we are making it easier for them to fall asleep [especially if your baby is an independent sleeper who falls asleep on their own without parental assistance] and to stay asleep [as all children will wake at the 30-45 minute mark for naps, and a dark room can help promote the transition into that next sleep cycle]. Especially if you are struggling with naps, experiment with getting baby's room darker - sometimes this in of itself can help encourage more quality daytime sleep. How dark are we aiming for? On a scale from 1-10, 1 being bright and sunny and 10 being pitch black, we want to get that room somewhere between an 8-10 day and night. This to me would mean that if you're in baby's room anytime during the day or at night and you were to have your hand outstretched in front of your face, it would be hard to make out your hand. 

A fantastic product to help achieve the proper darkness level [but still keeping it super affordable!] are these window covers. My kids spent a lot of time with tin foil over their windows as I struggled to find something that was equally as effective - until a client sent me a link for these! Life changing! Check 'em out!

Baby Cave Component #3 - Noise

This point goes hand-in-hand with the above point. While a baby can be easily overstimulated by light stimulation, another major source of overstimulation is sound stimulation. It isn't realistic [and oftentimes impossible!] to control all of the sound in our homes - you may live on a busy street or you may have other children at home that don't understand the concept of being quiet while baby sleeps. So while sound outside of the room cannot often be controlled, we can rely on white noise inside of the room to help block out or mask some of that noise. White noise has so many benefits for a child's sleep, including increasing the quality of sleep and helping to reduce stress and avoid overstimulation. While again, parents may be worried about a child becoming dependent on white noise, thankfully it's not addictive or habit-forming [want to get rid of it? Turn it down a notch every day until it's gone]. And even if your child does grow up to be an adult that prefers some sort of ambient sound when they sleep, it's much easier to re-create a sleep environment with a bit of background noise than to re-create a completely silent sleep environment. When baby was in your tummy, there was constant white noise [and it was about as loud as a lawnmower!] Silence is often deafening for babies. 

To use white noise safely and effectively, it's important that we ensure it is not too loud [it should be no louder than 50-60 dB, or about as loud as if you were in the bathroom with someone while they were showering]. The best spot to place the source of white noise in baby's room would be across from the crib, not right next to it. White noise should always play continuously [I'm talking to you, Sleep Sheep] and not on a timer. It should play for the entire duration of nightsleep and for naps as well. We should also be playing a boring, constant, and monotonous sound. No music [too stimulating!] or anything with 'too much' going on - plain white noise is great, or a constant rain/waves/heartbeat noise. White noise is also a great cue for sleep for baby, and especially if you are working on eliminating any sort of props from a child's sleep routine [nursing to sleep, rocking to sleep, bottle, etc.] replacing that with another sleepy cue [like white noise!] can help with that transition.

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Extra Tips to Help Encourage a Safe Sleep Environment 

  • Always place baby to sleep on their back. Even once baby is able to roll, continue to always lay baby down on their back. Once they can roll on their own to their tummy, it is safe for them to sleep in that position, but back to sleep always.
  • Using a fan. The use of a fan has been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS by up to 72%. A ceiling fan is great if it's available, but even a table fan can work to help encourage proper air flow.
  • Use a sleepsack. Blankets on a baby are likely to be kicked off within minutes, rendering them quite useless [and unsafe!] but a sleepsack isn't going anywhere. Kids don't often learn to pull blankets onto themselves until about 3-4 years of age, making a sleepsack very useful to keep kids cozy!

    Find more tips and guidelines here!

Pam Edwards is a Certified Infant & Child Sleep Consultant and founder of Wee Bee Dreaming Pediatric Sleep Consulting in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Healthy sleep is addicting and she has made it her life mission to help families all across the world get the sleep they deserve - a good night's sleep doesn't have to be a dream!