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Sleep does the body good
00:58 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Like many moms, Sofia Axelrod found the lack of sleep really hard after giving birth. But unlike many moms, she refused to accept that the exhaustion was inevitable.

“Sleep deprivation is so detrimental,” said sleep consultant Axelrod, who is a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York. “I didn’t just want to suck it up and think, yeah my life for now on is going to be permanently damaged.”

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The mother of two was inspired to dig into the research, looking for evidence-based tactics to get young children and their parents to sleep through the night. The results of her search can be found in her new book, “How Babies Sleep: The Gentle, Science-Based Method to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.”

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?

At a lab incubator, neuroscientist Sofia Axelrod examines fruit fly strains, which are kept in precisely defined light/dark cycles to entrain their circadian rhythm.

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.