Have you ever been fast asleep in the middle of the night and then become suddenly aware that a little person is standing right beside you? Then you hear, “Mommy, I can’t sleep…there’s a monster in my room.” After the initial shock of being startled awake, you walk your little one back to bed and reassure him or her.
The fear of the dark starts around the 2-year mark. These rude awakenings in the middle of the night or the need to fall asleep with the lights on make for long nights. So, how do you deal with the fear of the dark?
Why Do Toddler’s Develop A Fear Of The Dark?
As toddler’s mind matures, they develop a long memory and their imagination grows. Plus, they’ve almost certainly taken a spill on the playground or had some kind of traumatic incident by this point, making them aware that there are things out there that can hurt them. They’ve also probably seen a few movies or been read a few books that have spooky or scary aspects, even if they’re geared toward children. Think of the stomping of feet in Where the Wild Things Are or the fangs of The Gruffalo.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t inherently dangerous, (although if your toddler has a tendency to leave toys on the stairs, you might argue to the contrary.) But for a toddler, there’s no history to draw on to assure them that they’re safe and secure after the lights go out.
Don’t Minimize the Fear of the Dark.
If you’re a Pinterester, you’ll have come across some cute ideas for dealing with monsters in the dark, such as “monster repellent” spray. However, I caution you as you decide the right course of action with regards to the fear of the dark.
This is my most important piece of advice… don’t slough their concerns off.
Monster repellent or a nightly under the bed search might seem like a good idea, but think about what it’s really teaching your child? It teaches them that monsters do exist and without repellent, they might very well be living under the bed!
Consider this scenario as an adult: You hear a noise in the house and are concerned that there is an intruder in your house. You nudge your spouse. What would you do if they responded with, “here’s a can of pepper spray, let’s have a quick peek? Everything looks good, I am just going to go out now, have a good sleep!”
That’s essentially what you’re teaching your child. “Mom or Dad is going to look around the room… nope, no monsters here!” Just imagine what your child is thinking… “yup, there are monsters, they’re scary and might sometimes live in my room!”
Dismissing your toddler’s fears as irrational or unfounded isn’t helpful, so try to understand where their fear is coming from. Ask some questions during this fearful time in order to seek the source of the fear.
Digging into their concerns is helpful in a couple of ways. It lets them know that you’re taking them seriously, which is reassuring, but it also helps you understand what you need to address to ease the fear.
For example, if they tell you they’re seeing things moving around their room, it might be caused by shadows or headlights from cars driving by. These flickering shadows coupled with a toddler’s imagination can create some scary scenes. In that situation, a dim 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 hormone for alertness.)
Understand that your toddler might not be able to communicate exactly what is causing the fear. So you’re likely going to have to work with slightly more obscure information, but you’re showing concern, and that goes a long way.
Create Positive Associations with the Dark
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 easiest way to deal with the fear of the dark is to spend some time together in the dark. This doesn’t mean cuddling until they fall asleep. During the day, explore the dark together. Read some books under a blanket with a flashlight. Play hide and seek in the dark or with dim lighting. Look up some creative ideas for making different shadow puppets.
One last little tip, turn down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches. It will ease them into a dark setting. As a bonus, this also helps to stimulate melatonin production, which will help signal bedtime. Two birds, one stone.
A word of caution, this isn’t likely to be an overnight fix, but stay respectful, stay calm, and stay 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 fewer visits in the middle of the night.
If your toddler is still struggling with sleeping through the night consistently, we’d love to chat with you. One of our sleep coaches would love to help your family have more peaceful nights.
We want to know what you or your baby/child are struggling with so let’s chat! We bet we can help. Schedule your free, no-obligation 20-minute phone call to see if we are a good fit.