It’s quiet – a little too quiet in between the intermittent clinks and clanks filtering in under the door. A child’s eyes blink open and the light from the hallway, or a nightlight in the corner, reassures peace and safety.
This is the scene in the not-so-dark of night in many Western homes these days. Children sleep alone in their own bedrooms where a nightlight replaces the comforting touch of a mother’s hand.
A child’s own Bedroom
My daughter co-slept with me in the beginning but after about a year, maybe less, I moved her to her own bedroom. I didn’t put a nightlight in her room at first. She slept in the dark for a couple of years. But when she was about three she started waking up in fear of the dark. Remembering my own childhood, and how afraid I was of just about everything (I was hypoglycemic) I put a nightlight in her room without even thinking.
A couple of years later, I re-evaluated that decision.
I talked it over with Evelyn, telling her that night lights can alter chemicals in our bodies, and that total darkness can improve sleep. She thought this was interesting. She said it kind of made sense since the mountains were so dark at night. After the discussion she said she’d give sleeping in the dark a shot.
Effects of Light Pollution
Sleeping in artificial light from street lamps, televisions, and night lights has been proven to be harmful in mice, hamsters, and birds, and it may be the case for humans too. Exposure to light either while sleeping or before sleep is thought to throw off circadian rhythms.
“So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.” – National Geographic, Our Vanishing Night
This lack of predictability prevents the body from settling into a pattern and causes disruptions in hormones. One of these hormones is melatonin, which is secreted after the sun sets. Melatonin is responsible for making us feel sleepy and for improving mood. If we produce less of it, either through exposure to artificial light before bedtime or through the glow of lights during the evening, we set ourselves up for myriad health problems.
Health problems caused by night-time light exposure
- Impaired immune system – Studies have shown that the antibody response to viruses is double in individuals who get adequate sleep than in those who don’t.
- Weight gain – When a person is sleep deprived, the body produces less of the hormone leptin (responsible for feeling satiated after we eat) and more of the hormone ghrelin (which makes us feel hungry). This can lead to overeating and weight-gain.
- Forgetfulness and impaired creativity - The hippocampus must be excited for the best mental performance. When the body is deprived of sleep, and the hippocampus is fatigued, creativity and memory are impaired.
- Depression – Mice have been shown to exhibit depression when not given the opportunity to escape light.
- Increased diabetes risk – Studies have shown that less than 6 hours of sleep can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
- Breast cancer – Night shift workers are more than 60% more likely to get breast cancer. Melatonin, which is produced in the dark of night, impedes the growth of cancer.
- Increased risk of injury in children - Children who get less than nine hours of sleep or who are not rested due to waking in the night or not sleeping soundly are more prone to injury. While kids may seem perfectly energetic, lack of quality sleep will render them clumsy.
Sleep in the Blackness
Dr. Mercola, among countless others, recommends sleeping in pitch blackness. He suggests covering the windows with blackout material and covering all electronics so that even after your eyes have adjusted to the light, you cannot see your hand.
In nature, we would sleep by the light of the moon and the stars, the amount of light exposure varying throughout the month. Our bodies are guided by the rhythms of day and night and also by the rhythms of the moon. Personally, I allow for a tiny trickle of street light as the moon waxes.
There is a discussion about sleeping in darkness on Paleo Hacks where one commenter posed just this concern. Responders disagree about whether people should sleep in pitch blackness but the overall consensus is that artificial light is bad and the only way to eliminate its ill-effects in our lit up neighborhoods is by blacking it out all together.
Fear of the Dark
Fear of the dark is a common issue but there are some things we can do to help kids overcome fear of the dark.
- Stay in the child’s room until they are asleep.
- Address hypoglycemia. Low blood sugar is at the root of nightmares which can cause a child to fear the dark upon waking.
- Feed kids more healthy fats, particularly saturated since saturated fat contributes to a general sense of well-being.
- If absolutely necessary, or during the transition phase, place a red bulb in the nightlight. Red light, like that from a fire, does not stop the production of melatonin but white light does.
- Limit scary tv shows and movies, especially in the evenings.
- Talk about fears.
- Comfort the child if they’ve had a nightmare. Some contend that joining kids in bed for after a nightmare could cause a dependency, but this may be misguided. Supporting kids through their fears actually lends them strength that they need to make it on their own.
- Teach deep breathing and relaxation so that they have the tools to overcome fears by themselves.
- Praise progress as children make steps to overcome fears and sleep with less and less light.
- Offer to keep the nightlight in the room just in case it’s needed.
Helping Kids Prepare for Sleep
Turning the lights down in the evening helps us prepare for sleep. Televisions, cellphones, video games, and computers with blue light should all be turned off after dusk to encourage the production of melatonin.
If kids have a difficult time unwinding, then more attention should be paid to fostering a relaxing environment in the evening. Some things that help kids wind down include:
- Bath time
- Dim lighting
- Bedtime stories
- A high fat snack
- Avoiding all types of sugars
- Taking a walk in a stroller or baby carrier
- A bike ride with a trailer
- A car ride
- Story telling
Turning the lights down in the evening helps us prepare for sleep. Televisions, cellphones, video games, and computers should all be turned off after dusk to encourage the production of melatonin.
If a computer is needed in the evening be sure that it has f.lux installed. This is a program running in the background which changes the the display of light depending on the time of day. After dark, the computer will display warmer tones (you can download this software free).