As loving parents, we sometimes create stories -- with the best of intentions -- about our children and their needs. Stories that can end up inadvertently undermining our families.
A child's fear of the dark is a common one. Children don't develop a fear of the dark until around 2-3 years old. Before that age, they don't have the developmental maturity to imagine scary monsters under the bed. So putting a night light in your baby's room -- or keeping the shades open during his nap -- can lead to overtired children and parents.
And we all sleep best in the dark. The presence of light signals our brains that it's time to be awake. Darkness tell our bodies that it's time to sleep. For that reason, keep your little one in a completely dark room as long as you can. Even with newborns, keep the lights as low as possible during the night (during feedings and diaper changes) to help them learn the difference between night and day. Use a dim nightlight as needed and total darkness whenever possible. You'll sleep better, too!
The ideal darkness for sleeping is so dark that you can't see your hand in front of your face. In order to create this level of darkness, you will likely need blackout curtains or shades. You can get inexpensive, stick-on ones at your local store if you are reluctant to commit without trying them first. You may need to use painter's tape around the edges to prevent any light leakage. This may seem like overkill but it can be enormously helpful with preventing early waking and short naps.
For those who fear that total darkness during daytime sleep will make naptime waking disorienting, not to worry. Appropriately timed naps mean that your baby's body clock is producing melatonin at the same time you put her down to nap. She will wake up refreshed if she isn't inadvertently woken too soon.
If your toddler or preschooler develops a fear of the dark, try to keep the nightlights to a minimum. With my own kids, I use a portable Munchkin nightlight that turns off on its own after a few minutes. The portability is great because they can carry it with them on those "scary" midnight trips to the bathroom. And the fact that it turns off on its own means that it won't disturb their slumber once they do drift off.
For night lights that stay on all night, it is best to avoid blue light -- which is stimulating to the brain -- and use red light instead. And of course, keep those lights as dim (or distant) as possible. For this reason, it's also best to avoid screen time in the hour before bed, as electronic screens also have blue light. It's best to dim the lights in the house in the hour before bedtime, too. All of these things signal your child's brain that it's time to sleep.
If your toddler or preschooler doesn't mention a fear of the dark, there's no reason to introduce a night light at all. Children who have always slept in the dark may continue to willingly to do.
If your child has always slept with a lot of light, you may need to wean them off it gradually. As always, I suggest involving them in the process as this will make them feel a lot more empowered and therefore, cooperative. Pick an afternoon -- not bedtime! -- to discuss the issue. Ask for their suggestions. You can say something like, "I've been reading that having a lot of light on in your room makes it harder for your brain to sleep well. I would like to work on having less light in your room at night. What do you think? Which nightlight could we try turning off first? What prize would you like to get for being brave?
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.