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The Science of Sleep

Updated: Feb 2




The Science of Sleep

When I was first training to become a Pediatric Sleep Consultant, I found myself most interested in understanding the science behind sleep. By understanding what contributes to healthy sleep patterns, we can better prepare our kids for this important daily routine. Here are a few facts that I have found most important in understanding sleep:

· The two biological factors that create the “sweet spot” for sleep are the hormone adenosine that builds as you are awake creating “sleep pressure” and the circadian rhythm (i.e., wake drive). When those two factors match up or “collide” we have the “sweet spot” which results in quality and restorative sleep.

· Environment is key! Creating a space that is conducive of sleep is step #1. Dark is a signal to the brain that it is time to sleep and thus melatonin is released. Make your child’s bedroom as dark as possible. Use blackout curtains, tape a dark sheet to the window, or use a thick blanket over the window to create the optimal sleep environment.

· If you are watching the clock, you may miss the sleep cues which help you to identify the optional nap time for your child. There is a range of time that is optimal for each nap during the day. The goal is to watch your child’s sleepy cues and to put them down when their body is relaxed and ready for sleep. The key is putting them down awake but relaxed. Identifying the “sweet spot” takes time as we watch our babies for those sleepy cues during those ranges of time. If we miss the sleep cues we may end up with an overtired baby who may then struggle to go down independently for naps. This will take time and practice as you learn how your baby shows you they are ready for sleep.

· Three characteristics of a quality nap include, at least an hour in length (for morning and afternoon naps), consistent and consolidated, and the child wakes up happy

· The goal for any child is to optimize night sleep. For an overtired child we want to repay the sleep debt over time. If we put a child down when they are showing sleepy cues, an early bedtime will naturally occur if we have established a solid day time sleep schedule. If we miss those cues and put the baby to bed later then they miss a cycle or some of NREM sleep which is the most restorative. Early bedtimes allow for more cycles of sleep to occur which helps to restore lost sleep. When kiddos are overtired we see lots of night waking, crying, and a lack of extended sleep periods. Early bedtimes are a great first step to creating healthy sleep habits!


I hope this information is helpful in understanding some of the science behind healthy sleep!


Dr. Hampshire

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