Preterm babies cannot come home right away. Usually, they must stay in the hospital until their doctor decides that they are strong enough to go home with mom and dad and start their lives. Though the hospital stay is supposed to be a way for the baby to grow and develop under the care of professionals, one study shows that it might actually do harm in the process.

When a baby goes home with mom and dad right away, he or she will fall into a natural rhythm right away. Mom will put him or her down for bed at night, and the lights will stay off until morning. In the hospital, the lights are on 24/7, and few people think about how this affects the circadian rhythm of premature infants in the hospital. Our circadian rhythm tells us when to sleep and when to wake up, and disruptions therein can cause a myriad of problems, both immediate and long-term. 

Premature infants under artificial hospital lights cannot get the sleep they need, and without that sleep, they cannot grow in a normal way. Brain development will be hindered, and research shows that this hindrance can lead to depression and other mood disorders. Most of these babies cannot see the sun out of the hospital windows, and they have no internal concept about when day and night occur.

Other studies show that premature infants who were exposed to cyclic lighting grew faster and became healthier because their biological clocks were properly set immediately. This study should clue hospital staff into the fact that they need to turn the lights off at night or find ways to only light areas in which babies need care during the night.

If you’re in the process of choosing a hospital to give birth in, consider visiting the preterm care unit and asking nurses how the lighting is managed. Of course, you don’t want to have a preterm infant, but if you do it would be much easier to know that they are being properly cared for with cyclic lighting. Make this a priority in your search, just in case your birth does not go as planned. According to this research, you’ll be able to bring baby home sooner if he or she is exposed to this lighting, because the sleep required for development will happen more naturally and on a schedule that you can keep.

Source: Haiping Hao et al: The Circadian Clock of Very Premature Primate Infants is Responsive to Light. The American Pediatric Society and the Society for Pediatric Research Volume 45 Issue 201A 1999