My baby is visually impaired – how do I help them sleep?
How does light affect my baby’s sleep patterns?
Newborn babies (0 to around 3-months) sleep (and wake) throughout the 24-hours as new parents know too well! By 6 months of age babies take most of their sleep at night and day naps become shorter. Changes in the light-dark cycle, as day turns to night, help the sleep pattern settle into this rhythm and stay on track. Exactly how this happens – using a critical light signal – has only recently been fully understood. Light from the environment travels through special receptors in the eyes to reach the biological clock in the brain. This critical light signal keeps the biological clock ‘in time’ with the environment.
What about my baby who has visual impairment?
Some babies and children with visual impairment cannot detect light at all and others can detect at least some light. If the light signal is not received by the brain, sleep can drift to become a little later every day. This can lead to a sleep disorder called ‘non-24-hour sleep-wake rhythm disorder.’ This is a risk if a child cannot detect light at all. In this sleep disorder children cycle through phases when they sleep during the night, then through phases when they mostly sleep during the day. This sleep disorder is quite rare but can be treated by sleep specialists. The good news is that most children with impaired vision are still able to receive light signals that get to the brain and affect the biological clock, and can detect when light levels drop at night. Since they can detect light and the signals get sent to the brain, their sleep stays in rhythm with the day-night cycle.
What else might help my baby who has visual impairment sleep better?
While light and dark signals are important to keep a baby’s sleep on track, there are other important senses that your baby can use to compensate for their visual impairment. For example, touch, hearing, and smell can be used. A regular bedtime routine that includes familiar sensory input will help your baby settle to sleep. You can, for instance, prepare your baby for bedtime with quiet, calming activities like baby massage. Once in the bedroom think about using a familiar smell like lavender and soothing background sounds that are only played in the bedroom. Be sure that if your baby drifts to a specific sound at bedtime (such as white noise or soft music) that the sound continues throughout the night. You want your baby’s environment to exactly the same when they naturally wake up during the night as when they fall asleep at bedtime. A sleep sack that feels familiar is another sensory reminder to your baby that “now it is time to sleep.” Restricting these sensations to the bedroom will help your baby associate their bedroom and bedtime with sleep and give them the best chance of sleeping well.