- Toddlers should sleep in the dark because darkness triggers melatonin production which is vital for sleep
- Darkness also reduces the chance of your toddler being too stimulated by their surroundings to sleep
- Your toddler should be exposed only to dim lighting for an hour before bedtime
- Night lights can be used to alleviate fears of darkness
When your toddler was a little baby, you were told they should sleep in the dark. After all, the womb is dark, so it’s what they are used to.
But once your baby enters toddlerhood, you might be wondering whether toddlers should continue to sleep in the dark? Or, is it ok for toddlers to have a nightlight?
Why is darkness so conducive to quality sleep?
You can expect the sleep of your children to change as they grow. The amount of sleep they require, as well as their sleep patterns develop so that, during toddlerhood, they need around 11 or 12 hours in a 24-hour period and naps consolidate to just one per day.
What doesn’t change, is the role of melatonin (the sleep hormone) in the biological processes of sleep. Despite all of the external factors that may be able to assist your toddler to sleep - like a comforter, a cool room, and a predictable bedtime routine, if they aren’t producing melatonin, they can not achieve quality night-time sleep.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland into the bloodstream, in response to darkness. This biological mechanism governs the body’s natural circadian rhythm or the sleep/wake cycle that occurs in every 24-hour period.
If there is not sufficient darkness to prompt this production of melatonin , then sleep onset can be significantly delayed.
But it is obviously ideal to have the body’s rhythms functioning optimally and producing melatonin naturally. Especially in those so young as toddlers, and when accommodating darkness is such a simple thing to do.
Sleep cycles were much easier to regulate before artificial lighting. And now, we not only have our home’s overhead lighting to contend with, but the blue light emitted from devices as well.
A Harvard sleep researcher found that just eight lux was enough to affect melatonin secretion (this is less light than most table lamps emit). And unfortunately, blue light has an even greater impact on melatonin.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because your toddler’s eyes are closed that light is not affecting them. Light can penetrate through the eyelid and still send signals to the brain, affecting your little one’s biological systems. This is why toddlers should sleep in the dark.
Reducing stimulation at bedtime
Aside from biology, there’s a behavioural aspect to consider as well. Toddlers can get distracted and excited easily. If they can see any of their toys or books around them, they might be too stimulated to sleep. If the room is dark enough, this won’t be an issue.
What about darkness before bedtime?
Darkness isn’t just important once your toddler gets to bed. Although toddlers should sleep in the dark, you should also be dimming the lights about an hour before bedtime.
A study on the sensitivity of pre-school aged children to bright light in the evenings found that their melatonin levels remained at a reduced level up to 50 minutes after light exposure .
It seems that light affects young children more than adults. Their eyes have a clearer lens and larger pupil which affects more light in, and therefore sends a stronger signal to the brain. That’s why darkness is so important - even leading up to sleep.
When are night lights appropriate for toddlers?
If your toddler is sleeping well in the darkness, there is absolutely no need to change anything. Do not feel you need to introduce a night light just because they are growing older, because a friend has started using one, or because a well-meaning relative is telling you to use one.
Like all aspects of parenting, you need to assess where your own child is at, and meet them there. So, if they are sleeping well now, please don’t change anything!
However, if your toddler has developed bedtime fears , like a fear of the dark itself, or of monsters hiding in the dark, a night light can be a good solution. It is a far better option to use a night light than to leave their door cracked open, or leave a lamp on in their room. Although these other practices might help to alleviate your toddler’s fears, you may find that this level of light interferes with their circadian rhythms and ability to fall back to sleep during what should be brief night wakings.
A night light should be able to provide just enough light to see the outline of your toddler’s surroundings when they have those brief wakings. If done correctly, this may help them settle straight back to sleep, whereas, if they find a pitch black room which arouses their fears, they may wake completely.
A night light also has benefits for you. If you check in on your toddler regularly, you will be able to do so, without shining a light into their room, or turning hall lights on and risk disturbing their precious sleep.
How to use a night light properly
If you decide to use a night light, we suggest following these guidelines so as to cause as little disruption to melatonin production as possible, and also keep your toddler safe.
- Ensure the night light meets AS/NZS 60598.2.12
- Make sure the night light isn’t touching any combustible surfaces, carpets, sheets etc
- Make sure the night light is not covered by any other materials
- Use a red light or even a warm yellow or green light
- Use low-wattage bulbs which are less susceptible to overheating
- Keep the night light out of your toddler’s direct eyeline - they don’t need to see the night light itself, just benefit from the slight illumination it provides
You should encourage and praise toddlers whenever they are being brave about sleeping in the dark.