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The Importance of a Dark Sleep Space

As a sleep consultant, one of the things I consistently recommend to clients is to make sure their child’s room is completely dark. And I don’t mean just turning off the lights – I want it to be pitch black. You should have trouble seeing anything at all once the lights are out and the curtains are closed.

When there’s too much light in the room, our little ones (and us!) have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. This is especially true with natural sunlight. It’s wishful thinking to expect your kiddo to wake at 7 am every day if the sun is coming up at 5:30 am and making their room really bright.

Science can help explain why we wake up when exposed to light. First, we must understand a little about circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are natural 24-hour cycles that help regulate everything from digestion to moods to the timing of sleep. They are controlled by a “master body clock” inside our brains called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). When the eyes are exposed to light (even through closed eyelids), the SCN sends signals to the body that it’s time to wake up. On the other hand, if the SCN perceives darkness, it will tell the brain to release melatonin (the sleep hormone) and make the person become drowsy.

Circadian rhythms and the hypothalamus

Credit: NIGMS

Read more about circadian rhythms.

To keep a child from having morning wake times that are too early, we need to ensure the bedroom room is dark, even after the sun starts to rise. This will help prevent the signals from the brain that it’s time to wake up, two hours earlier than we want them to wake. In the same vein, we need the room to be super dark at bedtime so that the brain can produce enough melatonin to help the child fall asleep.

I can tell you firsthand that making the room darker will help your child sleep later in the morning. The scenario of 5:30 am wakeups I described above was happening with my oldest son when he was around 3 years old. I realized some natural sunlight was leaking in through our shutters and aiming right at his bed. The morning after installing blackout curtains, he slept until 7 am.

Blackout curtains

My son inspecting his new blackout curtains

Some parents may think that the early morning wakings are because their child has a sleep problem, and decide to treat it by giving melatonin supplements. Since melatonin supplements aren’t regulated and so many children have overdosed on them lately, I recommend for all my clients wean off of melatonin before working with me. This way we can address the actual underlying issues that are causing the sleep problems in the first place, and not mask them with the use of melatonin supplements. If you do decide to use melatonin supplements, be sure to consult with your pediatrician.

Make sure you keep the room dark! You can use blackout curtains, blackout window cling, and even tape up black garbage bags or aluminum foil to the windows. Try making your child’s room darker and let me know if it helps!

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