Axelrod learned that parents’ brains — mostly moms — are wired to care for a young child. Nighttime noises, tame or savage, will jolt many of us awake. Even when the baby is capable of self-soothing. Even when we are so, so tired.
But if we let our instinct to care for our young children reign supreme, and get no sleep as a result, nobody wins. “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” the old saying goes; and sleep-deprived mamas are not happy.
“I wanted to be happy, and I need sleep to make me happy,” Axelrod said. “So I said, how do I make it happen?”
Axelrod spoke to CNN about how to maximize everyone’s sleep, from the baby years on. She also had a few thoughts about which pandemic habits might be getting in the way of a good night’s sleep, and which ones, surprisingly, are not.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: Humans instinctively respond to light and get sleep cues from natural and artificial light. What should parents use for light to signal “sleepy time” to their kids?
Sofia Axelrod: The light bulb went off in my head, pardon the pun — it’s intended — when I was working in the lab with fruit flies. When we want to test their sleep without waking them up, we use a red flashlight. Every other type of light wakes them up.
I was pregnant, and I realized that the same is true for humans. We are largely insensitive to red light. So I bought a red light bulb (Ed. note: Not all red light bulbs are actual red light, so shop carefully) and started using it during nighttime feeds when my baby was born, and it worked. The baby wouldn’t get the signal from the red light that it’s time to wake up.
CNN: How does light signal to the brain that it’s time to sleep or time to wake up?
Axelrod: We have these special cells in the back of our eyes that have special light receptors. So whenever you’re exposed to light, in the morning or the evening, they signal to your body that it’s time to be awake. They reset your body clock.
You can use light to help train your body that this is bedtime, and this is morning time.
CNN: Can introducing red light and limiting overall light exposure help older kids fall asleep more quickly at night?
Axelrod: Yes. We actually have a red light in our living room that we put on an hour before bedtime.
CNN: Can dimming lights in the evening help get us to sleep?
Axelrod: Yes, though it’s really important to be consistent with timing. We need to work with our inner clock. Also, turn the red light on or dim the lights an hour before bedtime. This is how long it takes for the sleep hormone that is dependent on light to be released.
CNN: Though no matter how careful we are with lights, babies will still cry in their cribs. What’s your take on sleep training?
Axelrod: Honestly, I regret calling it “sleep training” in the book because those two words have such a negative connotation. That said, there are longitudinal studies showing that allowing your child to cry a little and learn to self-soothe has no detrimental effects.
I recommend a middle…
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