Being afraid of the dark is a common childhood fear. Dr. Sue Hubbard, who writes the syndicated newspaper column, “The Kid’s Doctor,” explains that almost all children go through a phase when they are afraid of the dark, usually around the age of two to three years old. She states this happens when a child “is old enough to have an imagination, but is not yet old enough to distinguish fantasy from reality.”
A child's fear of the dark can disrupt the entire household’s sleep. Your child might fight bedtime, have a difficult time falling asleep or wake throughout the night, either crying with fear or climbing into your bed. Parents and children end up cranky and tired.
Dr. Hubbard indicates this fear usually resolves itself by the time your child reaches four to five years old. By that time, both you and your child might be completely exhausted. Fortunately, there are some ways you can help.
Don’t dismiss your child’s fears as nonsense
That doesn’t mean you have to buy into the monster under the bed, but these fears are very real to your child. It’s important to let your child know that you understand they are afraid and you are going to help them find ways to cope with their feelings.
Ask your child about their fears
Children’s imaginations can run wild and what you might assume is frightening them might not, in fact, be what is causing them to be afraid. Sit on their bed and ask if there is a particular part of the room that seems scary. Shadows on the wall? The patterns on the rug? Your child might find it easier to talk about their fears during the day, when it is light out. You might discover a television show, even one that seems harmless to you, is adding to your child’s fears. Finding out if there is a specific cause can help you eliminate it or find ways to help your child cope.
Insist your child stay in bed
Allowing your child to climb in bed with you, although it might help in the short-term, reinforces that their room is a scary place. If you must, stay in your child’s room until they fall asleep. It is easier to slowly ease your child back into sleeping alone than to remove him from your bed. After a few nights, you can tell your child you will be back in five minutes to check on him, then increase that to 10 minutes and continue until your child can fall asleep on his own.
Create a calming bedtime routine
The fear of the dark is often the result of the fear of the unknown. Develop a soothing bedtime routine: for example, a warm bath, a bedtime story and a few minutes cuddling. Routines help your child feel safe and secure.
Avoid chasing the monsters away
It’s tempting to use fairy dust or magic spray to clear your child’s room of monsters and other nighttime fears but much like letting your child sleep in your bed, this can reinforce that there are reasons to be afraid. Allowing your child to look in the closet and under the bed to reassure that there isn’t anything there is okay. Your goal should be to develop your child’s coping skills rather than create a reliance on "magical thinking."
Use a night light
You might need to experiment with the type and placement of a night light. For example, some might cast shadows on the wall that resemble monsters and bright night lights can interfere with the sleep cycle. Start with a bright light, if necessary, and slowly decrease the amount of light or move the nightlight to the hallway. Other types of night lights, such as those in a stuffed toy, can give your child a sense of control over the darkness.
Play games in the dark
Make up a camping camp by draping a sheet and sitting inside with a flashlight with the lights turned off or use glow in the dark sticks and march around in a dark room. This gives your child different ways to perceive that darkness can be fun.
Give your child something to think about
Sometimes your child needs something to focus on rather than thinking about their fears. With your child, create a list of fun topics to think about, for example, an upcoming family outing, a play date with a friend, baking cookies together, decorating cupcakes or going on a trip. Ask them to plan what they would like to do. Let them know that you want to hear all about their plans in the morning.
Reassure your child you are there
Once you have tucked your child into bed, leave the room while reassuring your child you will be right down the hall or downstairs. Set a time for when you will check back and at that time, pop your head in, give reassurances and then leave again. As your child relaxes, you can increase the time between check-ins.
Use positive reinforcement
Give your child a small reward, such as a breakfast treat or a sticker in the morning if she stayed in her bed during the night. Let her know that you notice how hard she is trying and keep your statements positive, such as, “You are doing a great job staying in bed.”
If your child’s fears are interfering with sleep, the anxiety is severe or is worsening, talk with your pediatrician. If you notice fears after a traumatic experience, talk with your doctor, especially if the fears continue after the situation has resolved.
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