"I Put a Night Light in My Baby´s Room So She Won´t Be Afraid of the Dark" and Other Well-Meant But Misguided Parenting Mistakes
As parents, we – with the best of intentions – tell ourselves a lot of stories about our children. And sometimes those stories can seriously undermine our families' needs. Putting a night light in a baby' s room is a perfect example of this.
Children don't develop a fear of the dark before age 2-3. Before that time, their brains simply don't have the developmental maturity to imagine scary monsters under the bed. And light in the bedroom is a bad idea. Light signals the brain that it´s time to be awake. We want to send the opposite message at bedtime and nap time, that it´s time to sleep. Darkness cues the body to release the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy.
For this reason, putting a night light in your baby's room is hurting her sleep without any benefit. If she cries at bedtime, it´ s because she doesn't want to separate from you, or because she is overtired, not because she's scared of the dark. Adding a night light will only make things worse in that she'll have an even harder time falling asleep. (And by the way, separation anxiety is perfectly normal and is not a reason to keep your tired child up, even if is what she thinks she wants. It´s only making things worse. When you get her caught up on her sleep debt, you will both see this.)
The best way to sleep, at all ages, is in total darkness. You should not be able to see your hand in front of your face.
You will likely need blackout shades to achieve this level of darkness. Your local hardware store can sell you inexpensive stick-on shades that you can try before you invest in a more permanent solution. You can also do what I did with my oldest, and tape up black garbage bags over the windows. Depressingly ugly but remarkably effective!
You may also need to add painter's tape around the edges of the blackout shades to prevent any light leakage. This may seem like overkill but it´s an easy step to try if your child is waking up too early. Even a tiny bit of morning light can wake a little one in the early morning.
At age 2-3, your child may develop a true fear of the dark. Only at this point should you consider introducing a night light. I use a portable Munchkin night light for my own kids. It turns off on its own after a few minutes, so it won't disturb their slumber once they drift off, plus the portability is great for those scary midnight trips to the bathroom.
If your child needs a light that stays on all night, pick something that has red light, not blue. Blue light is stimulating to the brain and tells us to wake up. Electronic screens contain blue light and for this reason, you should avoid exposure to screens in the hour before bedtime, too. I recommend turning down all the lights in the house in the hour before bedtime. This is one more cue to the brain to start winding down.
Keep night lights as far from the bed as possible. And keep the number to a mínimum. Your child should not sleep with more than one all-night night light. If your older child (preschool or older) child is sleeping with multiple night lights, you will need to wean him off them. When making big changes to your child's routine, I always suggest having a conversation with your child ahead of time (not at bedtime!), getting his buy-in, and rewarding his cooperation. After all, this is your idea, not his. I might say something like, ¨"I have learned that sleeping with too much light on makes it harder for our brains to relax. I want to work on having fewer night lights in your room. I know that might be hard for you. What prize would you like to earn for working on this?"
Some parents fear that creating a dark sleep environment will create dependence or worse, that their children will wake up cranky and miserable if they sleep in darkness in the middle of the day.
It´s true that if you put your child to sleep in the dark, he may require darkness to sleep. And that dependence on darkness can occasionally be inconvenient. But wouldn't you rather have a child that is (nearly) always well-rested and occasionally doesn't sleep well because you can't recreate his ideal sleep environment on the go? Versus a child that is so overtired that he will fall asleep wherever he is, but is never well-rested? (A child that always falls asleep in the car is an overtired child.)
As for your child waking up cranky after a nap in the dark? The problem is not the darkness. The problem is the timing of the nap. A correctly-timed nap will not result in crankiness. A correctly-timed nap in the dark will coincide with your child´s natural surge in melatonin, the sleepy hormone, so your child will nap well and wake up well-rested and happy. An incorrectly-timed nap results in that cranky, miserable feeling we adults feel, too, when we sleep at the wrong time. It´s called nap inertia, and my older daughter had it all the time because I didn't know better and put her down to nap too late. It was miserable for both of us. If you can't put her down on time, it's better to keep her up and implement a very early bedtime instead.
It can take courage to make big changes in your child's sleep routine, like eliminating night lights. Be patient and encouraging with both of you. If you would like some support along the way, schedule a free chat and get your family the sleep you deserve, guaranteed.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.