Nightlight Research

Research & "Research"

In my search for concrete answers on whether night lights are good or bad for my baby, I came across a lot of information that was confusing or conflicting. I was shocked to find that some of the top results were based on logical fallacies, written for website hits and shock value, rather than truth and facts.

I have to be honest: I design and sell nightlights. However, I’m first and foremost a parent. I’m also an engineer and a researcher. Nightlights are not my field of study, nevertheless I have read enough research papers in my life to know my way around them.

Good research is based on well funded, meticulous planned and carefully executed academic studies. The quality of a study strongly depends on information such as sample sizes, the type of sample, how data was recorded, and the method(s) used to analyze the data to name just a few. Getting something small wrong in just one of these and your study is practically useless to draw a concrete conclusion from (and this happens more often than it should). Doing a study on nightlights on 10 children, sorry your sample size is too small. All of the children in the sample come from families who are worried that nightlights may affect their sleep, great you are introducing a bias right there. Asking parents to self report, that is an awesome way for noise and errors to creep into your data. The thing is, researchers try very hard to control for all of these things, but it is so easy for something to creep in. Worst of all, often it goes unnoticed in spite of all the hard work and good intentions. All of these things are hidden from a reader when reporters proclaim that a new study has shown this or that shocking result.

Then there is the issue of complexity. Humans are extremely complex. The way things interact with each other is extremely complex. The variability between us makes it so that different things affect different people differently. Some people can smoke and eat sugar for every meal and die of old age, others cannot get their cholesterol to safe levels even if all they eat are greens. There is a reason many studies start out with lab mice: uniformity and tight control. There is also a reason many of the results do not translate to humans: were not mice, and humans in the “wild” are pretty non-uniform and uncontrollable.

It also does not help that reporters, who are parents (if we are so lucky), not researchers, report on studies. Mistakes I see made when reporting on nightlights include but are not limited to:

  • Making a claim about the effect of night time lighting, without quantifying the night time light. A street lamp 30 meters away from the window will have a different effect to a light in the room you try to sleep in. Type of light? Behavior of light? Other factors such as sound, smells and temperature? Child’s allergies? Sleeping arrangement and configuration in relation to the light? It goes on and on and on and on.
  • If it is true for adults it is true for children. Children and adults are not the same. We all know this. They don’t sleep like adults, so why would they be affected in the same way? The results from a study on night shift workers cannot simply be applied to normal healthy children. How are those the same?
  • Speaking about similarity, assuming every child is exactly the same. Do these reporters even have a child? Do they meet other children? Sure there is an average, but for every kid that sleeps like a rock there is one that wakes up when you blink.
  • Because there is a correlation between two things, the one causes the other. Huge mistake! There is a very strong correlation between the consumption of mozzarella cheese, and civil engineering doctorates awarded. One cannot draw the conclusion that if civil engineers eat more mozzarella cheese they are more likely to get their doctorate degree. Without a causal link (A causes B causes C causes D), all you have is correlation. Its interesting, nothing more.
  • There were no nightlights X number of years ago, so it must be bad for you. Maybe, but neither was basic civilization and everything that comes with it such as security, safety, comfort, convenience, antibiotics, logistics, the internet, cellphones, schools, etc. What is the point of this statement? How well would we sleep if we lived under a tree with wild animals roaming free around us? Can’t blame that on the nightlight. Besides weren’t fires used to keep wild animals away?

So what does this mean? Take the results of these “experts” with a pinch of salt. Relax, your baby will be fine, and you will be fine. Sleep is very important, but you have to look at the problem holistically. There is no point in throwing out the nightlight if it means the little one is so scared of the monsters in the closet that they cant sleep, or if mommy needs to turn on the bright room light every time a nappy change is required. I’m also not convinced that a broken neck caused by tripping over stuff while you wander blindly at night is a better outcome than a not at all understood link to some disease. Nightlights causes prostate cancer? How did the light get there? If nightlights were THAT dangerous, there would be warning labels on them, they would be well regulated if not banned outright.

As a guideline

  • If you can see the light when your eyes are closed, it’s not a nightlight, it’s a day light.
  • Do what works for your family and your own unique situation.
  • Use the nightlights where they are most needed, even if it is just between the bedroom and the fridge.