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Afraid of the Dark

Afraid of the Dark

I remember the exact night I became afraid of the dark. Without my parents knowing, I snuck into the living room while my older brother was watching “Child’s Play” starring the Chucky Doll for his birthday party and I saw things a 5 year old should never see! That was the night when darkness and I stopped being friends, and the demand for a nightlight was made.

Fear of the dark can start at any age, but typically it starts to show up around the 2-year mark. Toddlers' minds mature, their memory gets longer and their imagination develops. They are coming into contact and understanding the world around them more and more which includes books, movies, shows, or even conversations that might be a little spooky. These interactions coupled with a toddler's imagination has the potential to create some pretty scary scenarios.

As adults, we are experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t inherently dangerous, but for a toddler, there’s no history to draw on to assure them that they are safe and secure after the lights go out.

So my first, and most important, piece of advice when you’re addressing your little one’s fear of the dark is this… Don’t ignore it or slough it off.

This can be a bit of a tricky situation to navigate. On the one hand, we absolutely want to show empathy and understanding when something frightens our kids. On the other, we don’t want to add fuel to the fire.

Consider this scenario: You’re concerned, rationally or not, that there’s an intruder in your house. You mention it to your spouse, who hands you a can of pepper spray and looks around the room, says, “Nope, I don’t see anyone. Anyways, I’m headed out for the night! Have a good sleep.” You better believe my peepers would not be shutting anytime soon!

So when we tell our kids, “Don’t worry there are no monsters here. Now I will tuck you back in and you can go back to sleep! It’s not nearly as soothing as we might think. It’s easy to see how they could interpret that as, “Yes, there are such things as monsters, and they can be scary, but I don’t see one in here at the moment, so sleep well!”

So instead of dismissing their fears, what can we do?

First, we can ask them questions when they express a fear of the dark. Digging into their concerns lets them know that you’re taking them seriously, which is very comforting knowing you are listening to their needs. It also helps you to assess what it is about the darkness that frightens them to help you address it in the best way.

For example, if they tell you they’re seeing things moving around their room, it might be caused by shadows. Headlights from cars driving by can often shine enough light through blinds to throw shadows across the room. Combined with a toddler’s imagination, that can create some seriously intimidating scenes. In that situation, a nightlight or some blackout blinds can prove to be a quick, effective solution.

Sleep Tip: If you’re going to use a nightlight, make sure it’s a warm color such as orange, yellow, or red. Cool colors such as blue, green or white lights may look soothing but they can stimulate cortisol production, (which will make it more difficult for your little one to get back to sleep.)

For a lot of toddlers, bedtime is the only time of the day that they’re left alone. They’re either playing with friends, hanging close to their parents, or supervised in some way, shape, or form by a grown-up. Bedtime is also the only time they’re exposed to darkness, so you can see how the two things together could easily cause some anxiety.

So the obvious (and super fun!) way to ease some of that apprehension is to spend some time together in the dark. Reading books under a blanket with a dim flashlight is a great activity. Some hide and seek with the lights out is tons of fun as well, just as long as you clear any tripping hazards out of the area you’re going to be playing in. (It doesn’t have to be pitch black. We just want to get some positive associations with low-light situations.) There are a lot of great ideas on activities to do in the dark with little ones. Take a look online to get some ideas that will be the best fit for you and your child.

Another way to encourage your child that their room is a safe space, is to implement “safe spray” into their bedtime routine. Safe spray is a spray bottle of water (you can put a scent like lavender in it as well). Have your child spray it a few times around the room to ensure their room is a safe space. You might have seen this idea labeled as “monster spray” but the difference with safe spray is that it emphasizes the room being a safe space, instead of the focus being on a spray that gets rid of monsters.

One last tip to help with anxiety around darkness is turning down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches. It is a good way to ease your child into a darker setting, and also helps to stimulate melatonin production, which will help him get to sleep easier. Also make sure that turning off the lights is not the last step in the bedtime routine. You will want to turn off the lights and then give your child one last kiss or hug goodnight before exiting the room. This way the last step of the routine is a positive interaction with you versus focusing on the transition from light to dark when darkness is the source of anxiety.

This isn’t likely to be an overnight fix, but staying intentional, calm, and consistent will help the process go a little smoother. After your little one’s fears have been addressed and they’ve learned that the darkness is more fun than frightening, you’ll start seeing more consolidated sleep and hopefully less visits in the middle of the night.

About the author

Amanda Medley

Why didn’t we try this sooner?! As we speak he is sound asleep in his crib – and has been since 7:15 pm.

Karianne Wanggaard

Sleep Well Sleep Specialists

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Working with Shannon, I went from 2-3 wake ups every night to 1 or 0. She aligned the plan with my preferred sleep cycle. She was always coaching, never judging. Shannon was great, I have referred MANY people to her! That's the best testament to her work that I can give.

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