“Lights out” is a very common phrase meant simply to imply that it’s time to go to sleep. In days past, our ancestors lived their lives according to what was a naturally determined version of “lights out” – typically rising with the sun and turning in when it set. Over the last century, however, we have been given far more control – now able to not only artificially and technologically manipulate our light exposure, but prolong it to such an extent that some of us live our lives in a state of nearly 24/7 light exposure. Given this fact, along with all we now know about what it takes to get a good night’s sleep, it occurs to me that it’s high time for “lights out” to be seen in a new light.
The fact of the matter is a whole lot is known about light’s impact on our likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep. The potential problems and pitfalls of living in a world of electronic devices and ubiquitous screens give new meaning to the description, “light sleeper.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 90 percent of people in the US admit to using an array of technological devices – from TVs and tablets to smartphones and laptops – during the hour before they go to sleep. The problem with this tech-heavy approach, simply put, is that darkness matters. Insufficient darkness not only delays the onset of sleep, but also leads to more frequent and prolonged wakenings. Light exposure is one of the most powerful signals in our environment when it comes to setting the body’s internal clock – a biological “clock” responsible for determining our sleep-wake cycles (also referred to as circadian rhythms). Keeping in mind this simple concept, the reasons for the following common sleep-enhancing tips should become both more obvious and enlightening.
- Rise and shine. Like “lights out,” rise and shine is an expression – as well as a piece of advice – that comes with plenty of supporting evidence. Exposure to sunlight (or bright, blue light) in the morning and during daytime hours is known to reinforce your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and signal that it’s time to be awake.
- Face (smart)phone facts. The screens on smartphone typically give off bright blue light – a design feature meant to help make them easier to see even in bright sunshine, but one that unfortunately comes with potential sleep consequences. Designed to mimic sunlight, this blue light is considered worst with respect to throwing off your body’s sense of day and night. The solution? Reduce your exposure to bright and blue-rich light in the evenings (generally recommended 1 to 2 hours before bedtime). If you find yourself unable to set aside your phone altogether, the iPhone added a new feature (in iOS 9.3) called Night Shift that allows you to shift to “warmer” and less eye-opening hues by cutting down your exposure to the harsher blue light at bedtime.
- Electronic-free bedrooms. Smartphones aren’t the only offenders when it comes to devices that interfere with getting a good night’s sleep. Common sleep-enhancing recommendations also routinely include turning off and/or keeping all close-range electronic devices (ie those which emit blue light) out of the bedroom. While phones, tablets and other screens definitely fall into this category, don’t forget to consider (and remove) chargers, sound machines, and other blue-light electronics and accessories as well.
- Choosing the right nightlight. Nightlights have increasingly become the subject of scrutiny in light of what we now know about sleep/wake cycle disruptors. This seems to be especially true for parents wondering whether or not to install nightlights in their bedrooms. Clearly, blue-emitting nightlights are not a good idea. But apparently, white light isn’t so great either. For those committed to using a nightlight, it seems that red light might be your best choice. From a practical parenting standpoint, however, I will point out that newborns enter into the world already well-accustomed to sleeping in the dark. As much as possible, it would seem best to keep it this way, rather than introducing them to artificial light at night.
The bottom line is that sleep is something we all do, and that we all need. It is also one of those key aspects of our everyday lives that all too often gets too little attention…that is, until we find ourselves fatigued. Representing much more than a casual expression, “lights out” now represents a succinct yet valuable piece of advice that, firmly supported by the latest in sleep science. It is my hope that by shedding some light on this important issue, you will see the value of turning out the lights, shutting off the screens, pulling the shutters and, at least in this particular instance, choosing to remain in the dark.
There certainly seems to be a lot of encouraging activity taking place in the world of early childhood these days – from campaigns such as Let’s Move to efforts dedicated to identifying high quality child care and insuring that it is both accessible and affordable for all. As a pediatrician trained in the so-called “hard” sciences, one of the most intriguing aspects of this activity, in my opinion, is the movement to effectively and impactfully take early brain science to the streets.
Before jumping ahead to some of the exciting and innovative work that’s now being done, it’s worth reviewing (in admittedly oversimplified terms) how we got here. The 1990’s were characterized by a “concerted effort to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research,” earning it its recognition as the “decade of the brain.” In 2000, the IOM released a galvanizing consensus report on the science of early childhood development – representing both a rallying cry and a very big next step in the brain-building movement. Aptly titled From Neurons to Neighborhoods, it served as a broad and firm, evidence-informed foundation for what we are increasingly seeing: direct connections being forged between the burgeoning brain science and what’s being done to directly promote healthy experiences and environments for all young children…on our “streets” and in our neighborhoods, our communities and across the country.
I have found that on the brain science side of the equation, nowhere is the large and growing body of early brain-based research more accessible, compelling and clearly articulated than Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, under the leadership of Neurons to Neighborhoods editor, Dr. Jack Shonkoff. Based on a firm believe that the science of early childhood – right down to the developing brain architecture – can be used to develop more effective policies and services focused on building resilience, developing executive function and self regulation skills, and ultimately preventing the potentially neurotoxic effects of poverty, adversity and toxic stress for those most at risk.
Adding to our increasingly deep and detailed understanding of the baby brain is interdisciplinary research being done at places like the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). Headed up by renowned baby brain researchers Patricia Kuhl and Andy Meltzoff, I-LABS is using intriguing modes of dynamic neuro-imaging such as MEG (magnetoencephalography) to not only provide compelling new insights, data and images about the connecting of neurons and the mechanisms for early learning, but also collaborating with people and organizations who can quickly translate this work into real-world applications.
With respect to these “real-world” applications, The First 1000 Days author Roger Thurow captures the importance of translating this science when he states, “If we want to shape the future…we have 1000 days to do it, mother by mother, child by child.” For anyone dedicated to doing just that, it’s heartening to see just how wide a range of brain-building efforts there are now in place across the country – all dedicated to helping all children reach their full potential by directly offering parents and caregivers evidence-based brain-building information, activities and support. Whether bringing the message to families where they live – on their phones, in their inboxes, on their screens or on their doorsteps – the following are a sampling of these brain-building efforts.
Vroom. Vroom’s brain-building message is clear: Shared everyday moments, from mealtime to bathtime, can easily be turned into brain building moments, and that parents have what it takes to become master brain builders. Suggestions for fun, everyday age-specific activities meant to “spark connections” are made easily available via the free Vroom app, along with practical tips, videos and even badges of encouragement. As for future efforts, watch for everyday brain-building messages to make their way on to the packaging of trusted brands. Supported by the Bezos Family Foundation, one look at the Brain Trust behind Vroom and it leaves no doubt that the best in early brain science is at its core.
Thirty Million Words Initiative. With a name based on the 1995 landmark findings of Hart & Risley, who found that preschoolers from families on welfare were exposed to a full 30 million fewer words than their high-income counterparts, Thirty Million Words Initiative is a Chicago-based, parent-directed program that employs the power of home visitation, one-on-one and group interactions, social media, and the use of the LENA word pedometer to study, build relationships, educate and support powerful parent-child interactions and children’s early language development.
Too Small To Fail. Given the foundational importance of early language development and exposure to words, Too Small’s to Fail’s parent-directed Talking is Teaching efforts include direct-to-parent tips and resources focused on talking, reading and singing with young children that are delivered via email and also available on Twitter (@TooSmallToFail). This is a partnership between the Clinton Foundation and The Opportunity Institute meant to improve the health & well-being of America’s children ages 0 to 5 years.
Text4Baby. Text4baby is a free mobile messaging service provided by Zero to Three – an organization dedicated to advancing the proven power of early connections – in partnership with Voxiva. Text4baby provides personalized, evidence-based health information in the form of text messages for moms and babies throughout the critical period of pregnancy and the first year.
Sesame Street. That’s right…when it comes to taking early brain science – complete with its implications for both cognitive and social emotional development – “to the street,” one needs look no further than the beloved Sesame Street. Founded on helping reach all children with life-changing opportunities to learn, a Sesame Workshop – RWJF collaboration is allowing the Sesame Workshop team to study how best to create and directly deliver the brain-building resources we now know are so fundamentally important for young children’s healthy cognitive and social-emotional development. If you aren’t familiar with past contributions of Sesame to this realm, just take a look at what they can endearingly do with key concepts such as self-control (a core component of executive functions skill development) and empathy.