Struggling with your little one’s sleep? Want to know more about the science behind baby and toddler sleep and some of the things that can affect it? This article outlines what melatonin is, how it can affect your little one’s sleep and tips to ensure your child’s melatonin levels are not the cause of a restless night.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that helps us feel drowsy and allows us to regulate our sleep patterns and therefore sleep better. It is produced in the pineal gland, in the centre of our brain, which synchronizes our daily cycle and our internal biological clock.
Our biological clock, also known as the circadian rhythm, is a group of cells located in the hypothalamus, the primitive area of brain.
This biological clock is set in response to changing light levels over a 24 hour period. For example, when the sun rises, the levels of serotonin rise, which helps us wake up. When the sun sets and light levels start to decrease, melatonin levels rise, which makes us feel sleepy.
Melatonin levels begin to increase about 2hrs before our regular bedtime, slowly preparing us for sleep. Overnight, the continuous release of melatonin helps us fall into a deep sleep.
In addition to hormone levels, the hypothalamus also controls daily changes in body temperature, intestinal activity and immune system function, which help regulate our sleep patterns. For example, steroid levels drop at night and rise in the morning, and our body temperature drops at night and rises in the morning.
* Tip 1: A warm bath is often recommended as part of a child’s bedtime routine because the drop in temperature after a warm bath helps prepare a child’s body for sleep.
Additional Benefits of melatonin
In addition to aiding sleep, melatonin also boosts immunity, as well as being a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
How do babies produce melatonin?
In the first few weeks after birth, babies get melatonin through their maternal breast milk and, as a result, they generally sleep a lot and have no problem falling asleep. When the supply of maternal melatonin naturally diminishes at around 3 weeks of age, they are suddenly much more awake and it can often be more difficult to get them to fall asleep.
At around 8 weeks, their biological clock slowly starts to mature and they start producing their own melatonin, which is when it becomes important to think about a dark sleep environment. Here’s why:
Natural ways to stimulate melatonin production
Light and dark
Melatonin, also referred to as the “darkness hormone”, is only produced when it is dark. The pineal gland secretes serotonin in response to light, which in turn is converted to melatonin when it is dark. Exposure to bright light suppresses the production of melatonin, which can make falling asleep more difficult.
* Tip 1: Try to avoid your kids watching any screens emitting blue light (tablets, phones or TV) at least 90 minutes before bed to avoid melatonin production being blocked.
* Tip 2: Also ensure their bedroom is completely dark. A dark sleep allows your baby’s brain to produce melatonin, while also limiting distractions, and therefore enabling easier settling. Too much light blocks the production of melatonin and signals to your baby’s brain that it is time to be awake, making settling and resettling challenging.
* Tip 3: The room should ideally be an 8-9/10 on the scale of darkness – it should be so dark that you would struggle to see if your baby’s eyes are open or closed from a couple of metres away.
* Tip 4: If your child starts being scared of the dark, which is quite common over the age of 2 years, us a red nightlight. Red light, as opposed to blue light, has minimal impact on the production of melatonin.
As mentioned above, the body’s biological clock and the release of melatonin are linked. Therefore, having a consistent nap and bedtime routine, which helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, will also help stimulate melatonin production.
* Tip 1: Wake your baby up at the same time every morning to stick to help you stick to a consistent routine.
* Tip 2: Follow an age-appropriate nap routine.
* Tip 3: Establish a consistent bedtime routine.
Food and sleep
Melatonin is synthesized from tryptophan, so tryptophan-rich foods can help with sleep.
* Tip 1: Try including tryptophan-rich foods, such as whole milk, cheese, nuts, seeds, turkey, chicken, avocado, oats and bananas at dinner.
For any other information about sleep, or to book a 1:1 sleep consultation, please do contact me via my bloss profile.
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