It is a common theme…it’s 3:00 AM, you’re sleeping soundly in your bed, and you suddenly wake up realizing that there is someone in the room with you! You hear their voice, and they whisper those four words that no parent wants to hear.
“Mommy, I can’t sleep.”
Fear of the dark usually begins to show up around 2 years old and can continue without some intervention into the later years. As toddler’s minds mature, their memory becomes longer, and their imagination develops. They are aware that there are things out there that can hurt them. They have most likely seen a movie or been read a few books that touch on a couple of spooky or scary elements, even if they are geared towards children. This is especially common with our older children, where they have seen something or heard about something that begins to give them fears at night.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t dangerous, and babies have no fear of the dark at all. 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. For a child who is older, they can become fixated on whatever the new fear is, causing them disrupted sleep.
So, my first and most important piece of advice when you’re addressing your child’s fear of the dark is this… Don’t ignore it, but also try not to make a huge deal of it. Now, this can be a bit difficult to navigate through. 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.
Here are 7 tips to help and hopefully ease away your child’s fears
1. Use a spray bottle filled with water and a bit of lavender essential oil (or any essential calming oil you prefer). Allow your child to spray the room once or twice before bed. If you do a spray, avoid calling it something like “Monster Spray”. Instead, try calling it “Safe Room” spray.
2. Avoid checking the closets or checking under the bed for monsters. Why? When we tell our kids, “Nope! No monsters here!”, it’s not nearly as helpful as you might think. It’s easy to see how they could interpret that to mean “There are no monsters here right now, but they might be there later.”
3. Ask them questions, dig into their concerns. This shows empathy and that you take them seriously, but also helps you to figure out where the fear is stemming from.
4. If they say that the fear is coming from shadows in the room, check to see if headlights going by or a light outside that is shining in might be causing it. A simple fix such as blackout blinds can solve that.
5. If needed, add a soft glow nightlight. 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.
6. Spend time together in their room in the dark. Examples of activities: Shadow puppets, reading in the dark with a flashlight, and playing hide and seek in the dark. It doesn’t have to be pitch black. We just want to get some positive associations with low-light situations.
7. Gradually turn down the lights at bedtime. This is a good way to ease them into a dark setting and helps to stimulate melatonin production, which will help them get to sleep easier.
This isn’t likely to be an overnight fix but follow the three C’s: stay considerate, stay calm, and stay consistent. Once your child starts to become more comfortable with the dark, you should start to see less of those middle-of-the-night wakings.
Missy Morrison Charko is a Certified Sleep Sense Consultant and Founder of Say Yes to the Rest Pediatric Sleep Consulting. She resides in the Blind Bay, BC area with her husband and two young children. She provides private sleep consultations and workshops within the Thompson-Okanagan Region and remotely across Canada and the USA. You can visit her website or follow her on Instagram @SayYesToTheRestToday for more tips and information.