It’s 2am. You’re sleeping peacefully in your bed, and you suddenly wake up, not entirely sure why, but as you start to gain awareness of your surroundings, you become aware that there’s someone standing right next to you! You hear the sound of their voice, and they whisper those four words that every parent dreads…
“Mom, I can’t sleep.”
Fear of the dark usually starts to show up around the age of two. As toddler’s minds mature, their memory gets longer and their imagination develops. They have experienced enough in life to know that there are things out there that are scary.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t inherently dangerous. For a toddler, on the other hand, there’s no history to draw on to assure them that they’re safe and secure after the lights go out.
My first, and most important, piece of advice when you’re addressing your little one’s fear of the dark is this…don’t slough it off. We absolutely want to show empathy and understanding when something frightens our kids. Keep in mind, though, we don’t want to add fuel to the fire and unknowingly contribute to their fears.
This is why I’m not a big fan of “monster repellent” or nightly closet checks before your child goes to sleep. When we check the room and then tell our kids, “No monsters here! Not that I noticed, anyway, so you’re all good,” it’s not nearly as soothing as you might think. They can easily interpret this as “Yeah, there’s absolutely such a thing as monsters and they do
tend to live kids’ closets, but I don’t see one in there at the moment, so…goodnight! Sleep tight!” Let’s just be honest with our kids when they are scared of monsters. Don’t check around the room – look them in the eyes and reassure them that monsters don’t exist.
Here are some things you CAN do when your little one is expressing fears:
Dig into their concerns. It lets them know that you’re taking them seriously, which is very reassuring. It also helps you to assess what it is about the darkness that frightens them so you can address it.
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 curtains or blinds to throw shadows across the room. Coupled with a toddler’s imagination, that can become really scary for them. In that situation, a nightlight or some
blackout blinds can prove to be a quick, effective solution.
Tip: If you’re going to use a nightlight, make sure it’s a warm color. Blue lights may look soothing but they stimulate cortisol production, which is the last thing we want at bedtime.
Now, if your toddler can clearly tell you what is scaring him or her, that’s great! It’s also very likely that your toddler will be unable to explain what is scaring them. This is when you have to move forward on little to no information.
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 probably see how the two things together could easily cause some anxiety!
Why not spend some time together in the dark?
Read books under a blanket with a dim flashlight.
Try hide and seek with the lights out. Just be sure to clear the floor of all tripping hazards! (It doesn’t have to be pitch black. We just want to get some positive associations with low-light situations.)
Teach your child about shadow puppets.
A quick Google search will load you up with dozens of ideas, so pick two or three that you think your child will like and let them choose one.
This isn’t going to be an overnight fix, but stay respectful, calm, and consistent. 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 less visits in the middle of the night.
My last tip for you is to turn down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches. It’s a great way to ease them into the dark instead of instantly going from bright light to pitch black. The lowering of the lights also helps stimulate melatonin production, which will help them fall asleep more easily. It’s a win, win!