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How Light Therapy Helps Your Neurodiverse Child to Have Better Sleep

What is Light Therapy and the science behind it?

Child sleeping after light therapy

If your child is struggling with mood, sleep, or energy issues, light therapy may be a treatment worth considering. Light therapy, also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy, is a non-invasive treatment that helps your child's body regulate its circadian rhythm naturally over time through exposure to bright light.

Circadian rhythm refers to the body's internal cycles that regulate sleep, eating, activity, and other functions. A tiny part of the brain controls these cycles called the "suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN)" in the hypothalamus.

Suprachiasmatic nucleus in hypothalamus for circadian rhythm

SCN is very light-sensitive. In the daytime, light signals the SCN to release hormones like serotonin. Serotonin helps your child to stay awake and it also regulates their mood.

At nighttime, the brain's pineal gland converts serotonin to melatonin. The melatonin hormone is a natural sleeping aid. An increase in the melatonin levels makes your child calm and sleepy.

Hence, hormone synthesis is interrupted when the SCN does not detect enough light in the daytime. As a result, your child may experience behavioral difficulties such as hyperactivity, hormonal imbalances, or sleep disorders like insomnia because of repeated disruptions in their circadian rhythm.

Therefore, exposing your child to strong light in the morning may help control the release of melatonin by allowing them to feel more awake during the day while sleeping more soundly at night.

How does Light Therapy Work?

Light Therapy Lamp for neurodiverse children

Before starting light therapy, it's important to consult with your sleep specialist to make sure it's the right treatment for your child and to determine the best dosage and schedule.

According to the Sleep Foundation, patients use a light box with a light intensity measuring 10,000 lux2, placed between 16 to 24 inches away from the face. The durations of sessions at this intensity range from 20 to 40 minutes. On the other hand, sessions with a lower-intensity light box (2,500 lux) may last as long as 2 hours.

With consistency and proper compliance to your sleep specialist's advice, light therapy helps reset your child's circadian rhythm. As a result, your child may be able to fall asleep better. Either earlier at night, or sleep in later in the morning, depending on what they need.

According to Stanford Medicine, light therapy also aids in the following:

  • Mood disorders

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

  • Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS).

Neurodiverse child sleeping

Sleep specialists highly recommend creating a sleep-friendly environment for your child while undergoing light therapy. You can also consider using blackout curtains for your child’s bedroom to make the room as dark as possible.

Here are some recommended articles for you to read which can give you some ideas on how to help your child get better sleep: 5 Quick Tips To Make Bedtime Easier for Neurodivergent Children and How To Get Your High Needs Child To Sleep, Step-By-Step

What are the main benefits of Light therapy?

Happy child playing during daytime

There are many benefits of light therapy, but some of the most notable ones are that it can help to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, and increase focus and concentration. For children with neurodiverse conditions, such as autism or ADHD, these benefits can be particularly helpful in managing their condition and improving their quality of life.

Other benefits of light therapy include the following:

  • May help in reducing the dosage of your child's antidepressant or sleep medicine.

  • Improve your child's sleep-wake cycle and mood.

  • Increase your child's daytime alertness and energy levels.

  • Minimize sleep-related issues including insomnia or hyperactivity in bedtime.

  • Minimize the use of sleeping aids to assist your child in falling asleep.

Moreover, one study found that after eight weeks of using a light therapy box for 30 minutes each day, children with ADHD had significantly improved sleep quality compared to those who did not use the therapy. They also had less daytime fatigue and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Another study looked at the effects of light therapy on children with autism spectrum disorder. After eight weeks of treatment, the children who used light therapy showed significant improvements in sleep quality, anxiety levels, and social functioning compared to those who did not use the therapy.

Overall, light therapy is a safe and effective treatment for children with neurodiverse conditions. Again, if your child is struggling with sleep, mood, or focus issues, it's important to consult with your sleep specialist first to make sure it's the right treatment for your child and to determine the best dosage and schedule.

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