It’s Bedtime. Turn Off the Night Light!


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.

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

Imbalanced hormones
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.

  • Co-sleep.
  • 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
  • Lullabies
  • 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
  • Cuddling
  • 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).

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  1. The link between hypoglycemia and nightmares is really interesting. That would make sense for my son who frequently cries out in his sleep. What would be the primal way to begin addressing this? Do you have a link to more information about that?

    • It is really interesting isn’t it? I wish my parents would have known about it because I had nightmares and awoke with vivid dreams as far back as I can remember. I also had all the other symptoms of nocturnal hypoglycemia. It’s pretty scary stuff. You can find material on this topic in diabetes literature. Here is a description to get you started.

  2. First I have to say I loved your article in Paleo Mag. (I’m really hoping to read a piece about breastfeeding and Paleo!! Hint, hint. :P )

    For Quinn’s first year we co-slept. Then she decided she wanted space of her own. There is a twin mattress on the floor of her room that she can get in and out of. There are noise and light canceling blinds over the windows and no nightlight. She goes to bed around 8 and wakes up around 9 in the morning. Occasionally she’ll wiggle off the bed and I nurse her back to sleep but most of the time I don’t hear a peep. When she wakes up in the morning, she crawls out of bed and plays with toys in her (babyproof) room until I come to get her.

    Like your daughter, Quinn seems to be pretty independent. I still try having her sleep in our bed but she wants nothing of it. She’ll jump all over us and then kick us right out. She likes her space more than I thought she would and I’m pretty sad about it. The first night she slept in her own room I got a bit teary-eyed, I didn’t want to give up co-sleeping with my baby!

  3. Thanks Whitney! It’s nice to hear. I would love to write an article about breastfeeding for the magazine. You know I’m a huge proponent! I’ll shoot for that soon but for now July’s issue is already complete.

    That’s interesting to hear your daughter just squirms out of your bed. Even now when I ask my daughter to sleep with me she gets all excited about it and lasts about an hour before heading back to her room. Everyone has their own personalities I guess.

  4. Some of the best parenting advice I got when my twins were newborns was to get blackout blinds. The book I read said there should be absolutely no light in the room at all. Nothing. I taped black paper to the windows then we got black blinds. You couldn’t see a thing. It worked like a charm and we’ve never needed nightlights or dealt with nighttime fears. It was great advice.

  5. I worked as a polysomnographic technician for a couple of years, and would often have adolescents coming in complaining of insomnia/unrestful sleep/daytime tiredness, etc. which is fair enough. I mean these kids often have a lot on their plate, which, if my memory serves me means getting up at 4 or 5, and getting into bed anywhere between 10 and 1, with a sleep into 3pm on Saturday or until your parents make you get up stop (ironically)”wasting” your day sleeping, and never feeling rested for a second in between.

    The thing is though, these kids didn’t have insomnia, or sleep apnea (I did, but that’s another story) they had poor sleep hygiene, i.e. they would fall asleep watching t.v. You often hear them saying “I can’t fall asleep without the t.v. on” when you tell them that they will have to turn it off. Well, you wont believe it, but they DID fall asleep, and a darn good nights sleep they’d have too – I know, I’d be wathcing their little brain waves dancing away in Delta and REM. Now if we could just reform the American education system to a more European approach, they’d not only be smarter, but…. Well, that’s a debate for another day maybe. :)

    For myself, It’s worth discussing the nightlight with my kids, but our relationship is a bit different – the whatever Mom says is WRONG relationship. They’ve pretty much railed against me from the start of this, and I know it’s going to be a long road. I’m taking it though! My husband and I always turn the light off before we turn in for the night, so they only fall asleep with it, which is not so bad. After that, we too have blacked out their window, for the sake of an extra hours sleep in the morning. :) It doesn’t always work.

    Peggy, do you know of any other articles on the hypoclycemia? That one left me a bit confused. Or perhaps you could tell me your own experiance with it? How did you find out you had it? I’m assuming it hasn’t been linked with night terrors?

  6. I do believe it! I used to fall asleep to the tv when I was younger. I didn’t like to watch tv actually and every time I sat in front of it, I would instantly fall asleep. I could fall asleep anytime after 8pm though, at a party or anything and sleep like a baby the whole night. But I’m sure it wasn’t good sleep. I had vivid dreams all night long and nightmares most nights too.

    I wish I could point you to more information on nightmares and hypoglycemia. If anyone knows of any, please leave a link or book title. It’s something that I have read so many times over the years, but in what books I couldn’t don’t remember. It’s something I take for granted now I guess. Given that I was plagued with nightmares and fear of the dark all my life and that it vanished when I went Paleo reinforced the idea in me.

    I’m sorry to hear that about your relationship with your kids. I do hope it changes as they start to get the junk out of their systems.

  7. Thanks Peggy. You know, I hadn’t even thought about this being an issue. Going to take the light out of my son’s room today. I guess my thought process had been, ‘What if they need to go to the bathroom at night and can’t see?’ Now that I think about it… he doesn’t get up during the night, ever! :o) I’m glad I found your blog via Mark’s Daily Apple – you have some great posts!

    • I figured other moms out there had just never thought about it! We get so used to the many modern “necessities.”

  8. Hey thanks Peggy. I’ve was following the Weston Price Foundation since before my youngest was born almost 6 years ago – I don’t know why, but I just felt like I needed another option to formula than the stuff in the stores – my milk left me with my first one, and I wanted to be prepared. So I googled homeade baby formulas, and there it was, a whole alternative lifestyle that I’m really glad I discovered. I did end up giving him the milk formula when my own dried up at 4 1/2 months, I don’t know why it happens. Maybe living primal will fix it, I really hope so. What would our primal ancestors have done, I wonder? I suppose the babe would have just died. Anyways, he did great on it. But I digress.

    Not much of a surprise, but the day after I wrote the above comment, I had a breakthrough with the kiddos. I just googled grains make you sick, and read an article to them, and we talked about it, and afterwards I asked what they thought, and my oldest said “Well, since you told me about it like that, I think it’s a good idea.” I think he needed that, to see that Mom isn’t just making this up, that there is a lot of information out there, and science to prove it (he’s a science kid) and there are definitely trust issues for us, but we’re working on them together, and I think we’re doing alright. I also have the Helping Young Children Flourish book and it’s been really helpful to me and my Husband in a few areas, particularly in understanding the need to cry, not only as kids, but as humans.

  9. Unfortunately sleeping in absolute dark has a bad effect on me, I find if I sleep in absolute darkness I end up having nightmares, or sleep paralysis.

  10. I’m always happy to read from someone who supports co-sleeping. I’ve seen positive effects of that, and laying by them in their bed after a nightmare with all three of my children.

    The link to hypoglycemia is fascinating, glad I stumbled across this.

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