Oh, baby sleep. It’s like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube while blindfolded. And speaking of blindfolds and darkness… in this post, we’ll chat about light and darkness. More specifically about when your baby needs each one for optimal sleep. Let’s jump in.
Why Darkness Is Important for Baby Sleep
Everyone benefits from a dark sleep environment. Darkness tells our brain that it is time for rest. While their bodies are becoming accustomed to living outside the womb, babies are more sensitive to light and its effects on sleep. Babies sleep much more than adults and have different sleep patterns, which can easily become disrupted. Darkness not only tells the baby’s brain that it’s time to go to sleep. Darkness also helps them stay asleep longer and go back to sleep easier if they happen to wake up.
The Science of Sleep
I know you might be a little sleep deprived after being up with your infant all night (or is it all day?). But we have to talk a little about the science of sleep. The circadian rhythm is like the conductor of an orchestra. When it does its job, your baby knows when to sleep and when to wake up and does both easily. So circadian rhythm is just a fancy way of saying sleep-wake cycles.
Too much light throws the entire orchestra off-track, like an untuned piano. Expose your baby to too much light at a time when they should be going to sleep and it messes with their circadian rhythm. This makes it much harder for your baby to fall and stay asleep.
Babies and Circadian Rhythm
Light and dark are not the only things affecting your baby’s circadian rhythm.
The famous day-night confusion when newborns are up during the night while sleeping peacefully all day is also created by circadian rhythm. Or rather, by lack of it. When babies are first born they do not have a developed circadian rhythm. They cannot distinguish day from night like older children and adults can.
On top of that, it takes weeks before babies start producing the hormone melatonin in their bodies. Melatonin production increases around weeks 9-12, allowing your baby to better control their sleep-wake cycle even further. The body releases melatonin when there is less light. It literally signals to your child that they should close their eyes and sleep.
How Dark Should My Baby’s Room Be?
That’s a great question. I find that most parents underestimate the degree to which their child’s room needs to be dark. If you think about a scale of 1-10 for light and dark, the room where your child sleeps should be a 9 or 10.
Not sure what that means? Go into your baby’s room, close the curtains and the door. Wait a few seconds to let your eyes adjust and put your hand out. If you cannot see your hand in front of you then it’s dark enough. Want a guide walking you through exactly what that looks like? Click here to download my Room Darkness Test.
Creating the Perfect Dark Room
Now that we know how important it is to create a dark sleep environment, let’s talk about how to do that. If you have used the Room Darkness Test, then you probably know that a regular curtain, even with a lining is not going to work.
One option is to buy permanent window treatments such as blackout curtains or blinds. Another solution would be to purchase a product such as Slumberpod which creates a blackout environment around your baby’s crib or Pack n Play (Use TENDERTRANSITIONSSLEEP$20 to save $20 at Slumberpod).
You might not be sure whether a dark room will help your baby sleep better and want to test it out. In that case, you can temporarily cut open a black trash bag and tape it around the window frame. If you find that the darkness improves your child’s sleep then you might want to invest in a more permanent solution.
Another source of sneaky light in the room might be electronic devices such as a white noise machine or humidifier. Make sure you either cover or turn off any light these machines generate to keep the environment completely dark.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are a number of questions I get over and over about baby sleep, light, and darkness. Here are the most common ones along with my best tips.
Should I have a nightlight in my baby’s room?
You may be considering adding a nightlight to your baby’s room. Remember that your baby will sleep best when their room is completely dark, so you should not have a nightlight. Do not be worried about them being afraid of the dark. While this is a common behavior, it doesn’t usually happen until your child is two or more years old.
If you feel like you absolutely need a light in the room, for example for changing, here are some considerations. The nightlight should, if possible:
- Emit a steady glow – no color changes
- Have an intensity setting so you can regulate how bright it is
- Be quick to turn on and off
- Be placed as far away from the baby as possible
My baby was sleeping perfectly well in a sunlit room. Why did they stop?
Remember that pesky circadian rhythm? At the beginning of their life, a baby does not have a clear understanding of day and night and their body does not respond to light in the usual way. That is both why your baby might not sleep during the night and why they can sleep really well even when there is plenty of light. All this tends to change between 8 and 12 weeks.
Does my baby need to nap in the dark too?
Yes, your baby should sleep in a dark room for naps as well. Remember, darkness tells your baby that it’s time to sleep. This will allow your baby to sleep better and wake up more rested.
As always, you should find out what works best for your individual baby. And at the end of the day, you sometimes might have to compromise. For example, you might need the baby to nap in the stroller or somewhere else where it is not possible to create the same level of darkness they would get at home. And that can be ok too.
Creating a dark, comfortable sleep environment for your baby can go a long way to improving their sleep quality. If you find that you are continuing to struggle with getting your child to sleep well at night and take restful naps during the day, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Remember, prioritizing your baby’s sleep is an investment in health and happiness for the whole family.