Jim Spilsbury, PhD
A child’s sleep environmentmay differ widely across cultural and social settings. Although the presence and use of ‘bedroom electronics’ has generated much recent (and deserved) attention, it is important to recognize that other characteristics of the sleep environment may also influence children’s sleep, making some environments more “sleep friendly” than others.
We asked Jim Spilsbury, PhD, Case Western Reserve University, to weigh in on what recent literature says about noise, light and temperature, the sleep environment and its effect on today’s modern family.
It is important to state up front that much of our knowledge about the relationship between these characteristics and sleep comes from clinical experience and studies focused mainly on adults. More research on the effects of noise, light and temperature on the sleep environment is needed, particularly with children.
Noise generated from other parts of the household (e.g., a living room with a television, or dining room where household members socialize late into the evening) may make it more difficult for children to fall asleep or stay asleep. Also, potentially sleep-disturbing household noise may arise when family work schedules necessitate departures to work, arrivals from work, and food preparation at times when children are in bed.
Of course, not all disruptive noise originates from the household. For example, living close to air, train, or road traffic routes may disturb residents’ sleep. Also, persons may live near noisy industrial or commercial areas. Moreover, “neighbor noise” – defined as noise generated by neighborhood households – is an increasingly recognized problem in many locations, particularly at night when background noise levels are low or in warmer weather when windows are open. Neighbor noise may include loud music, arguments or fights, barking dogs, house maintenance work, noisy children, and household ventilation and air-conditioning equipment. In some locales, neighbor noise has replaced air or vehicular traffic as the neighborhoods’ most significant noise problem, and research has established that children are sensitive to neighbor noise and may find it annoying.
Light levels in the sleep environment may disrupt children’s sleep. Similar to noise, unwanted light may emanate from within or outside the household. Complete darkness isn’t necessarily desirable: a dim nightlight can make the room more comfortable for younger children.
Children and teens generally sleep better in a room that is cool, but not too cold: temperature extremes in either direction may make sleeping more difficult. Temperature can become especially important in circumstances when families lack options to make the environment more comfortable: e.g., blankets, comforters, or adequate room heating in cold temperatures; fans, air conditioning, or open windows in hot temperatures. Sometimes, concerns about family security trump physical comfort, such as when families keep windows of bedrooms without air-conditioning or fans closed in hot summer months to deter crime.
Changing specific features and practices associated with the sleep environment is generally part of the strategy of health-care providers to improve sleep. Keeping noise, light, and temperature in mind, a “sleep friendly” environment is generally one that is cool, dark, and quiet.