Why a dark room helps your baby sleep better
Growing up my bedroom was on the east side of the house. So, the sun came blazing in as soon as it came up. This was not an ideal situation as a teenager when I wanted to sleep until noon! Even with the shutters my parents installed I still remember how bright it was in the morning. I think we can all agree that we inherently know that light doesn’t help sleep. Sunlight tells our brains it’s time to be awake and darkness tells us the opposite – it’s time to sleep.
Then as a new parent I came home and had a sweet sleeping infant. At first infants actually experience day/night confusion, they’ve been in complete darkness for 9 months. They slept based on our movements as moms. When we were really active it rocked them to sleep, which is most likely to be daytime. At night as we tried to lay still and sleep your little peanut thought it was party time. It was easy to let my sweet one sleep during the day and enjoy those peaceful moments in between napping myself. But, night time came and it was a different story – there were feedings every few hours and then sleep was hard to come by, she wanted to party. What’s a new momma to do?
If you’ve stuck with my sleep series this far, and read about the importance of sleep sacks and white noise, then you are familiar with Jilly at Baby Sleep Made Simple, my sleep hero! She talks about the importance of making your child’s sleep space dark to eliminate light cuing your baby to wake up. This among other things helps correct the early days of day/night confusion for you baby, but has lasting benefits. According to Dr. Michael Breus, light is the most important thing to consider when it comes to sleeping well. It doesn’t matter if you are a baby, toddler, or adult darkness helps you sleep.
Through your sense of sight, the brain takes in information about the light in your environment. That information helps to regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycle and influences the release of hormones, including the “sleep hormone” melatonin. When your environment is bright, melatonin levels stay low, and you stay more wakeful and alert instead of sleepy. A dark bedroom is best for sleep. Darkness triggers the brain to slow down and stimulates the production of melatonin, what I call the key that starts the engine for sleep. – Dr. Michael Breus, Ideal Home Sleep Environment
How to darken your child’s bedroom
Ok we’ve established why a dark room is critical, but how do you go about it?
There are a lot of options for darkening the room, but since I’m all about saving money let’s talk about cardboard! (if you don’t have time or can’t find cardboard you can find Jilly’s other suggestions here)
I didn’t care how bad it looked at that point. With all the money I’d had spent on baby gear I didn’t need one more thing to spend money on. And because of all the baby gear amazon packages coming to my house, not to mention the crib box, I had tons of cardboard. Even when my baby was still in my room in a bassinet, my very handy husband got out the Exacto knife, packing tape, and measuring tape; and got to work darkening our bedroom. We needed our baby sleeping better asap, and we needed to be able to sleep some during the day too, since nights were still a struggle.
To make sure the room is dark enough don’t forget to do Jilly’s hand test:
- Go into baby’s bedroom in the middle of day.
- Turn off the lights and close the curtains.
- Then wave your hand 2 feet in front of your face.
- If you can immediately see your hand, the room is too bright!
Once it was time for peanut to head to her own room and crib, the first thing we did was darken the windows with cardboard. My husband used the cardboard from our bedroom windows, resized it, and fit it into the nursery windows. He even put in a handle so one pane could slide open and shut to let light in when needed. But, you don’t have to get that fancy! Almost two years later the cardboard is still in the windows. The room gets so bright in the morning, and I’m not taking any chances.
What about naps?
If you watched the full video above you heard Jilly’s comment on napping. You may be concerned about your child becoming dependent on darkness to sleep. “If your baby is able to nap well at home without using blackout curtains, that’s great! You don’t have to add them just because I recommend it.
But, if your baby is NOT napping well, then we need to add in some extra sleep props to improve naps. At 3-4 months old, babies become more distractible and it’s harder for them to sleep in bright rooms. A darkened bedroom will help your LO nap better. Most babies and toddlers can still have an occasional nap “on the go” and sleep fine. In my opinion, it’s best to use every trick up your sleeve to help baby nap well at home.”
I completely understand this challenge, but I made the decision to make sure we were home for nap time as much as possible. For you this may not be an option with balancing older siblings and their schedules, but for me it was possible. When we went a ways from home for a special outing or to visit family we timed it so we were driving during nap time. Then I was able to loosely cover her car seat with a light blanket to dim the light. IMPORTANT: do not cover with a heavy blanket for risk of suffocation, make sure there is a small gap for air to flow, and make sure someone is seated directly next to the car seat to periodically check on your little one. Then we would put on white noise and not talk. With the combination of car movement, white noise, and a slightly dimmed setting we had no problem with car naps. The movement of the car is actually quite magical in getting children to sleep.
A darkened room is a great tool you can use to help your baby sleep better during the day and later in the morning! THIS MOMMY TRIED IT AND YOU CAN TOO!