How Time Outdoors Resets Circadian Rhythm and Improves Sleep

Sleep is as essential to children as food and water, helping them to form new pathways in the brain, concentrate, and create new memories. But with busy schedules and more time spent looking at screens, kids are getting less quality sleep.

Here’s how daylight and time spent outdoors can reset the circadian rhythm and improve both the quality and quantity of sleep for kids.

time outside reset circadian rhythm for sleep

There’s a great deal of information available on the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature. So it should be no surprise that the great outdoors can also improve sleep.

Without quality sleep, children’s health and development may suffer, increasing the risk of stress, depression, anxiety, impulsivity and aggressive behavior. 

Sleep-deprived children often suffer from a Circadian Rhythm Disorder. And they are more likely to struggle with learning and cognitive functions, like decision making and conflict resolution. 

Yet many children are missing out on quality sleep, and the skyrocketing use of melatonin at bedtime (one in five U.S. children regularly takes melatonin for sleep) suggests that they have trouble falling asleep in the first place. 

While melatonin might provide a short-time fix, the risks of using this hormone supplement in children long-term are unknown and researchers caution against using it as a first-line treatment. 

The good news is that you can still leverage the power of melatonin and other hormones naturally to improve your child’s sleep.

How Much Sleep Kids Need

While all children are individuals with different needs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues general age group recommendations that can give you an idea of whether your child is getting all the sleep they need in a 24-hour period: 

Infants: 12–16 hours (including naps)
Toddlers: 11–14 hours (including naps)
Preschooler: 10–13 hours (including naps)
School age (6–12 years): 9–12 hours 
Teen: 8–10 hours 

However, when the CDC surveyed parents across the U.S. on their children’s sleep habits, they found that, on average, over one in three children aged four months to 14 years falls short of the recommendations. 

Boys and girls were equally short on sleep, but the prevalence of sleep deprivation varied significantly from state to state, ranging from one in four children in Minnesota to over half of the surveyed children in Mississippi. The CDC has also found that six in ten middle schoolers and seven in ten high schoolers are not getting enough sleep.

Understanding Your Child’s Circadian Rhythm

The key to improving your child’s sleep schedule is to understand that humans, like most living beings, run on so called circadian rhythms. These physiological changes operate on a 24-hour cycle and are controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain, which works as a master clock. 

Circadian rhythms can affect body temperature, digestion and hormone levels, including melatonin, the hormone that regulates our natural sleep-wake cycle. This biological cycle is individual and varies with age, which means that there is no one-bedtime-fits-all.

Just like adults, some children are more prone to be alert in the morning whereas others thrive at night. Adolescents tend to fall into the latter group, since their bodies generally run on a later circadian rhythm than younger children and adults. 

In children with neurological differences such as ADHD and autism, the body sometimes produces less melatonin than normal, which can disrupt their circadian rhythm. This is important because proper sleep can improve brain performance in children with ADHD.

If you find that your child often resists going to bed or has problems settling and falling asleep, it may simply be because their bedtime is out of sync with their inner circadian rhythm. One study showed that toddlers who were put in bed before their natural rise in melatonin had begun took the longest to settle and go to sleep. 

To help improve your child’s sleep, you could either adjust their bedtime to when they are physiologically more ready for it, or you could try to reset your child’s circadian rhythm.

Resetting Your Child’s Circadian Rhythm with Daylight

Aside from drowsiness, long-term disruptions to our circadian rhythms can lead to a host of health problems, so helping your child get enough z’s is essential. And the most powerful tool at your disposal is daylight. 

Natural daylight regulates the production and release of melatonin, helping your child align their circadian rhythm. This in turn helps them go to sleep earlier and sleep longer, as well as get higher-quality sleep.

The bright, white light of the morning hours has the best effect when it comes to advancing bedtime, so try to get outside early if you can. Direct sun exposure isn’t necessary – you just need to get out the door. If you can and want to, try taking your child camping. Studies show that sleeping outside for just a couple of days can do magic in terms of resetting our circadian rhythm.

Artificial Light Is the Enemy of Good Sleep

Just like daylight can promote wakefulness during the day and sleepiness at night, the artificial light that most children are exposed to today can have the opposite effect.

Normally, melatonin levels rise at night when there is less incoming light, making the child feel drowsy and tired, but with artificial light these natural responses are disrupted. 

The blue light from electronic devices is especially potent when it comes to suppressing melatonin and confuse our circadian rhythms, so turning off phones, computers, TVs and tablets an hour or so ahead of bedtime is a good idea to avoid sleep disruptions. You can also try dimming the lights in the house to signal to your child’s brain that it is time to start winding down.

Outdoor Napping

If exposure to daylight can help your child sleep better at night, what could sleeping outside during the day possibly do for their circadian rhythm? More than you may think. While outdoor napping is still a rarity in the U.S., it is far more commonplace in the Nordic countries, where parents believe it makes their babies and toddlers more alert, improves their appetites and enhances the quality of their sleep. 

Research on outdoor napping is scant, but a Finnish study did confirm that babies take longer and deeper daytime naps when they sleep outside. The benefits of letting your baby nap outdoors don’t end there.

Newborns don’t have an established circadian rhythm and often confuse their nights and days in the first 3-4 months of life. Outdoor napping is a surefire way to ensure that they receive the daylight exposure they need to develop and sustain a regular circadian rhythm.

More Nourishing Sleep After Outdoor Play

There is a reason why parents watching their children wear themselves out on the monkey bars or race around on their bikes often contentedly note that, “they’re going to sleep well tonight.” 

Physical activity in general and outdoor play in particular is linked to longer sleep duration and more efficient sleep, which is a way to describe how much of the time that a child spends in their bed they are actually asleep. 

When children play outdoors, their bodies release soothing endorphins that reduce stress and help them feel relaxed. Just like daylight, physical activity also increases the nighttime melatonin levels naturally. 

Rest assured that you don’t need to plan out a hardcore exercise program to get your child active outside – children’s activity level tends to be higher when they are allowed to engaged in good old unstructured play. 

The Connection Between Time Outdoors and Sleep

If your child is having trouble falling and staying asleep, or simply doesn’t get enough sleep, you may very well find that the answer to your woes is found in their circadian rhythm. 

By learning more about your child’s individual biological clock and realigning it through plenty of daylight exposure and physical activity, you set them up for healthy habits and more harmonious bedtimes.

The best part? As long as you avoid excessive sun exposure, being outdoors has virtually no side effects!

Fun Ways to Get Kids Outside

If you need a little inspiration for getting kids outside, here are reasons and projects to enjoy the great outdoors:

DIY Organic Bird Feeder
Nature Scavenger Hunt
Backyard Bug Count Activity
Connecting With Nature Through the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv
Create a Wildlife Garden
Stargazing with Kids
Fairy Garden Ideas for a Magical Backyard

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