Sleep. Ah. It can seem so allusive for parents of young children. Yet, increasingly we are understanding just how important it is. Sleep is a time of regeneration and growth for all humans and a time of great brain plasticity and development, especially for babies. Sleep is also a particularly vulnerable time. As one doctor told me, the effects of EMFs, toxins, and other exposures are particularly damaging while we sleep. Perhaps this is two-fold: because there is a lot of healing and growing that happens at this time small exposures can have bigger impacts and since we are busy doing this, our detoxification and “guard” functions are less on.
How do we lay the foundation for our children to have the healthiest sleep possible
1. Invest in the mattress
If you are going to invest in one thing in your bedroom or a child’s nursery (whether that is a closet or a suite of rooms just for your baby), please consider getting a truly natural, organic mattress. If your lucky, your child will spend more time asleep than awake for the first year of her life. Her cute little baby cheek pressed against a mattress. Conventional mattress release known toxins—including formaldehyde a known human carcinogen not safe at any level—and chemical flame retardants, the most common of which can effect a child’s growing brain and perhaps even his DNA. That’s not all: babies are born with over 130 known or suspected toxins already wreaking havoc in their bodies and that includes chemicals from conventional mattresses. Read more about finding truly natural, “organic” mattresses. This same information (& Green Mama mindset) applies to anything with foam (read more about it below).
2. New cribs, changing tables, & other furniture are major pollution culprits
Your sleep is an important time. Indeed, one of my favourite doctors insisted that we (and our children) are far more vulnerable to all pollutants during sleep than at any other time. Yet, most baby’s rooms that I’ve visited in my work are the most polluted rooms in the house and the air inside the home is already many times more polluted than outdoor air (5 to 7 times on average according to EPA). Indeed, just one new crib can pollute an entire house enough to raise a child’s chances of developing asthma and even cancer. Imagine, then, what happens when you add in a similarly polluting change table, book shelf, rocking chair, new paint, and then close the door. While I have a lot more tips on greening the nursery in my book, one of the big ones is to green your crib. You can do that by buying an all-wood (not composite, glued-together wood) crib with natural finish, or by getting a hand-me-down crib (seven years is the magic number for off-gassing formaldehyde and remember to check to see if the crib as been recalled or even safety updates have been made for it. Call the manufacturer!!), or by skipping the crib altogether and investing in a safe co-sleeper, cradle, just the mattress, or co-sleeping.
3. Buy your self and your child natural pajamas
Those polyester-blend pajamas of our childhoods were linked to genetic mutations. Yup. That’s right. Despite Tris (the chemical flame retardant culprit) being entirely banned, it found its way into other nursery items such as nursing pillows, car seats, and mattresses and new chemical flame retardants, some considered just as bad, found their way into polyester blend and rayon pajamas.
Natural, in this case, means not treated with chemical flame retardants. Ideal is 100% organic cotton or wool. As long as the pajamas are snug fitting, cotton won’t burst into flames when your child smokes in bed. Finding “natural” sleepwear, though, can be more complicated than you think. Laws in both the U.S. and Canada require that children’s sleepwear (9 months through size 14) meet special flammability standards.
Cotton and wool meet these flammability standards inherently as long as they aren’t mixed with synthetics. Most synthetics only meet these standards by the addition of flame retardant chemicals, the most common of which have been linked to genetic abnormalities and /or cancer.
Usually pajamas that DO NOT have chemical flame retardants added have some warnings on the label such as: Must be worn snug fitting. In general, garments are referred to as “flame resistant” if it meets flammability standards without additional chemical treatment, while the term “flame retardant” refers to the addition of chemical flame retardants. Since nightgowns and robes aren’t tight fitting by nature, you won’t easily find them made for children out off natural materials. If you are desperate for an all-cotton nightgown, you may have luck looking for cotton “play” dresses.
4. Consider swaddling your baby
It is a time-tested method of getting better sleep in many cultures. For older babies and even children, try a sleep sack. These are sleeping bags that a child wears and are considered safer than loose blankets. Always use swaddles and sleep sacks made from natural materials, such as wool and cotton, that are free of dyes, flame retardants, and other synthetic chemicals.
5. Perhaps a sound machine will help
It’s not particularly green, but I would recommend a sound machine. In small spaces, shared bedrooms, or noisy urban environments they can really help recreate the sounds of the womb and distract from the dog barking and the neighbour’s yelling. Read the section on EMF radiation and keep all electronics far from baby. Skip all those silly plastic mobiles that have to be wound and wound. (And skip the baby monitor if at all possible.)
6. Get SIDS Smart-er
There are a number of suggestions on how to protect your baby from SIDS and environmental health research suggests a number of others that will benefit. Read the article to learn how to get SIDS Smarter.
7. Know the fundamentals of sleep
I’ve been doing a lot of research through the years on sleep. Sleep for babies. Sleep for grown-up. Sleep for sleep-deprived parents. That’s a different article or three. But there are a few things that you ought to know that will really help.
- Daytime sleep (naps) and nighttime sleep are organized in different parts of the brain so you need to teach your child separately how to do both. That’s right: just because your child figures out how to sleep in her crib for her nap doesn’t mean she’ll do it at night until you teach her to do it.
- Your child’s sleep will follow a pattern: first he will organize into three naps a day, then two, and then one. Around 18 months he or she will likely have about one nap a day for one and half to three hours. Your child NEEDS that daytime sleep. Ideally, right up until he or she is five.
- If your child gets over-tired during the day (because, for instance, they didn’t get enough sleep during the day) they will sleep worse at night. In other words, while you may think that your child will sleep better if you keep her up later or skip one of her naps, but the research says you are very, very wrong.
- Children who only sleep while in motion seem to have a harder time retaining naps and learning to self-soothe. I highly encourage you to use one of his naps and every bedtime to teach him how to fall asleep on his own.
- There are many ways to help a young child learn to sleep: they range from nursing him almost to sleep and then soothing him the rest of the way down to letting him cry himself to sleep. And lots and lots of in between. Remember, however, your child is learning. So, if you teach him to need you there or to cry or to rely on a three hour bedtime routine, that’s what he will need for quite a few years.
- Develop a calming routine. For instance: a bath, massage, and lullabye. Or a story, song, and prayer. Ideally a routine that can be shortened when need be.
- Your child will sleep better at night if he gets a lot of outdoor time during the day (it stimulates melatonin which controls sleep) and if her room is dark at night. Also, all children should avoid screen exposure as much as possible during the day and certain within a couple of hours of going to bed as it will also effect melatonin which helps control sleep.
Learn more about how to green your bedroom or nursery in the Green Mama book or by Asking the Green Mama a question. And, of course, don’t forget to sign up for our truly awesome newsletter for regular doses of good advice (or just a little inspiration).