Do Babies Sleep Better in the Dark or With a Night Light?Mar 23, 2023
Sleep is essential for babies and young children as it is crucial for their development and growth. As a parent, you want to ensure that your child is getting the best quality sleep possible. One aspect that can greatly affect sleep quality is how dark or light the room is.
A common question that parents often ask me is whether they should have their baby sleep in the dark or light, and whether or not they should be using a night light. The truth is that babies sleep better in the dark. In this blog post, I’m going to go over why sleep in the dark is more restorative for babies, how light affects a baby’s sleep, and how to create an ideal sleep space for your baby.
Do Newborns Need to Sleep in the Dark?
When babies are first born, their circadian rhythm is still developing; which means that they do not yet have a consistent sleep-wake cycle and their bodies need a little bit of help determining whether it’s time to sleep or be awake. They will typically sleep for short periods of time throughout the day and night. Sleep for newborns can range anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours at a time, and all of those times are healthy and normal.
During the day, I recommend letting your newborn nap out in the open in a light room (unswaddled, with noise, etc.) to help establish their circadian rhythm. If you let your baby sleep all day in the dark, they may wake up frequently at night, thinking it's time to play. If you’re struggling with a newborn who is sleeping all day long and up all night long, this means they have their days and nights confused (which is a common newborn sleep issue!) and may need some help to reverse this issue with a few simple tweaks to their routine.
Newborns need a lot of sleep, usually between 14 and 17 hours a day. At night, it is really beneficial to keep the room as dark as possible, and this is where I recommend swaddling if you choose to do so, as well as keeping it quiet and unstimulating. The darkness helps to signal to their bodies that it is time to sleep, helps to prevent stimulation that could disrupt their sleep, and encourages their bodies to produce melatonin, which is a hormone that helps regulate sleep. Without melatonin, babies will have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep.
The Importance of Darkness for Restorative Sleep
Darkness is essential for restorative sleep, for babies, children, and adults! When we sleep, our bodies go through different stages of sleep, including light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. These stages are important for the body to repair itself, consolidate memories, and process emotions. However, exposure to light, especially blue light, can disrupt these stages of sleep, leading to less restorative sleep.
Light and Its Effect on Baby Sleep
Light has a significant impact on baby sleep. Exposure to light, especially blue light, can stimulate babies, making it harder for them to fall asleep or stay asleep. This is because light suppresses the production of melatonin, and disrupts the circadian rhythm. Even small amounts of light, such as the light from a night light, can have an impact on sleep quality. When melatonin levels are low, it's harder for babies to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Light can also lead to short naps and early morning wakings. For example, if your baby takes a nap in a room where light is creeping under the door or through the curtains, they may not sleep as deeply or for as long as they would in a darker room. We all wake between sleep cycles, just briefly. If there is something stimulating around us when we wake, like light, it makes it much more difficult to seamlessly continue onto the next sleep cycle. As a result, babies can wake up earlier than usual, feeling tired and cranky.
As babies grow and their circadian rhythm develops, they will start to have longer periods of sleep at night and more regular nap times during the day. During this time, it is still important to keep the room as dark as possible at night to promote restorative sleep. This means using room darkening or blackout curtains to block out any outside light.
How to Create the Best (and Safest!) Environment for Baby Sleep
An ideal sleep space is one that is as dark as possible, cool, and comfortable. This helps to promote restorative sleep and ensure that babies are getting the best possible quality of sleep so that they can be their happiest, healthiest selves. Here are some tips for creating an ideal sleep space for your baby:
Keep the room as dark as possible. If the room is not dark enough, it can be difficult for babies to fall asleep at bedtime and stay asleep when they wake briefly between sleep cycles. During the summer months when the sun doesn’t go down until after bedtime, my kids used to say to me, “it’s not time to go to sleep, Mommy! It’s not dark outside!”
I recommend using room darkening or blackout curtains to get your baby’s room as dark as possible for sleep, even when the sun is out. This will help to cue your baby's body that it's time to sleep and keep them from being stimulated and waking earlier than necessary in the morning or from a nap, as well as help them be able to fall asleep faster at bedtime. I have a few favorite options for room-darkening curtains, both permanently, and on the go, with travel curtains [Use the code “babysleepdr” for 10% OFF your purchase].
One other game-changer for getting the room as dark as possible is using light blockers for underneath the doors. There is a customizable option on Amazon that allows you to cut the product to the exact length of your door in order to block light from creeping through from underneath. This is one of my favorite hacks!
I know it can be such a worry for parents that their little one will become dependent on darkness to be able to sleep, but it’s really not the case. If a child is tired enough, they will sleep regardless of how light it is. However, it may take them longer to fall asleep, and they may wake up sooner than they would if they were in a dark room. This is actually why I recommend keeping the room dark - they just will sleep better. But if it’s not possible? Maybe your child goes to daycare and they don’t allow the room to be too dark. If that’s the case, don’t stress. Focus on getting as much restorative sleep as possible for your situation, and know that your child will sleep in other situations, even if it’s not quite as well as the ideal situation at home.
Keep the room slightly cool. The ideal temperature for sleep is between 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s not possible to get to this temperature with an air conditioning unit or heater, you can consider using a fan, a space heater (though, always remember to turn it off before you go to sleep), opening a window, using curtains that keep the room temp more neutral, and adding or removing clothing layers from your child.
Use a white noise machine. White noise can help to block out external noise and promote restful sleep. Especially as babies transition from just two stages of sleep to four stages, just like us, and they’re beginning to spend more time in light sleep stages, all while their awareness is also increasing. White noise can help babies to stay asleep longer, while blocking out things like a doorbell ringing or a dog barking. But remember to use your sound machine safely, so that you don’t risk potential hearing loss over time.
Use a firm mattress with a soft sheet. As long as your baby is in a crib, there should be nothing inside of it except a firm mattress and a tight-fitting bed sheet. Once your child has moved to a toddler or big kid bed, it’s safe to use pillows, stuffed animals, and blankets. Before moving to a bed, the safest possible recommendation from the AAP is to keep the sleep space completely clear in order to decrease the risk of suffocation, strangulation, injury, and death. Clothing layers and the sleep environment can be altered to add warmth or cool down, rather than blankets.
Avoid using a night light. As we mentioned earlier, babies don't need a night light to sleep, and it can be a source of unnecessary stimulation. Though, if you need to feed or change your baby in the middle of the night, it's okay to use a dim night light. Red light is even better, as it is the least stimulating color. I highly recommend leaving a night light out of the sleep situation until your child is at least 2-3 years old and they have specifically, on their own, indicated that they would like to use one. But remember, it’s not something you ever have to introduce. If your child is sleeping well in the dark and has never mentioned fear or asked for a night light, then there’s nothing to change!
And one additional note to consider regarding light throughout the room is whether you have any additional rogue lights that could be a distraction, even in a pitch-black environment. These could be lights from electronics, a smart light switch, etc. If you do have something like a humidifier that you use for your child’s room that you’d like to continue using, but it has a stimulating light, try using black electrical tape to cover the spot where the light comes out. This is also a great tip for sleep while traveling and staying in a hotel room! Cover all those electronic lights with black electrical tape to have an easier time helping your little one fall asleep in an unfamiliar environment.
When Should You Use a Night Light in Your Child’s Room?
Babies are not developmentally able to be afraid of the dark. Therefore, a night light is unnecessary for them. If a toddler develops a fear of the dark and specifically asks to use a night light, it can be considered. However, it is important to use a very dim night light, or a red light, which is even more ideal to be the least stimulating option.
If your toddler has suddenly indicated that they have developed a fear of the dark, the first step I recommend is to talk to them about it. Try to understand where this fear came from. Sometimes, it’s as simple as them seeing it in a TV show or hearing it from another child and they are just mimicking what they’ve heard, without a real understanding or actual fear. Oftentimes, a fear of the dark is reinforced by the parent, or even a learned fear from the parent originally (i.e. we assume they’re scared of the dark at a certain age and use a night light). It’s always best to listen, and sympathize with their perceived fears, but try not to reinforce the idea that the dark is something to be scared of. Try reassuring your child that the dark is how we get the best, most peaceful sleep so that we can take on the day tomorrow! And that their room is a safe, loving place. Of course, if your child is truly scared of the dark, it’s ok to use a night light.
If you have decided a night light is important to use with your toddler or school-aged child, I am a big fan of choosing one that also has the “ok to wake” style feature that can either turn on or change to a different color to indicate to the child that it’s morning and time to wake up and come out of their room. This is a great learning tool for kids once they transition from a crib into a bed.
Do Babies Really Sleep Better in the Dark?
One of my favorite tips for parents struggling with night wakings, early morning wakings, taking forever to fall asleep at bedtime, and short naps (basically everything LOL) is “when in doubt, black it out!” The reason I like to drive home the concept of sleeping in the pitch black for babies is that it really is one of the fastest and easiest starting points to have success with solving some of these things. Some babies really are ONLY waking up because their room is not dark enough, or they have random lights around the room that are stimulating them when they wake briefly between sleep cycles. There are many situations where a parent thinks the room is dark enough, but by adding room-darkening curtains and removing any other lights (like a night light, humidifier, or something else plugged in), their baby starts sleeping better.
What do you do if your little one is still struggling with sleep even though the room is pitch black?
It’s important to investigate how your little one is falling asleep in the first place to help you identify what sleep habits you may want to change or work on. If you’re looking for help getting your little one to fall asleep and get back to sleep independently, without being fed, rocked, or held to sleep, make sure to check out my digital downloads by age! They’ll walk you step-by-step through how to encourage your child to learn to sleep independently.
Or, if you’re struggling with an ongoing, one-off situation that you’re looking for one-on-one guidance to help troubleshoot, check out my email support package for personalized advice.
Need help transforming your child's sleep? Check out my sleep offerings for children 0-3 years old!
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