Updated: Jan 17
It’s 3:00 AM, you’re sleeping soundly 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, to your horror, that someone else is in the room with you! You hear the sound of their little high pitched voice, and they whisper four words that chill every parent to the bone.
“Mom, I can’t sleep.”
As early as two-years-old, children can express a fear of the dark. As a toddler’s mind matures, this is when their imagination and normal fears begin to develop. Many things can cause stress to a toddler or preschooler. They’ve almost certainly taken a spill on the playground or had some kind of traumatic incident by this point, so they’re 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 touch on a couple of spooky elements, even if they’re geared towards children. Where the Wild Things Are, for all of its charm, can cause some uneasiness in a toddler. Other changes may cause stress to children ages 2-4: toilet training, transitioning to a big kid bed, a new sibling, changes at preschool, or feeling anxious/stressed during the day.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t inherently dangerous, (although if your toddler has a tendency to leave Legos lying around, 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.
There are a lot of scary things in the world. Things that make us feel uneasy and helpless. Like reality TV, or the attitude of a pre-teen girl. All jokes aside, fear is a big part of our child's development. One of the biggest fears your child will experience is a fear of the dark. Nighttime doesn't have to be when the monsters come out to play though, we can ease our children's fears with a few simple strategies.
So my first, and most important, piece of advice is to address and acknowledge your little one’s fear.
This can be a bit of tricky waters to navigate. On one hand, we absolutely want to show empathy and understanding when our child is frightened by something. On the other hand, we don’t want to add fuel to the fire. We want to make sure the fears don’t become stalling tactics so setting limits while reassuring them can be helpful. We do not want to dismiss our little one’s fears, no matter how irrational they may sound to us.
If it is the middle of the night, acknowledge your child is scared by "sportscasting". Sportscasting was coined by infant specialist, Magna Gerber, where parents state the facts of what their child is going through in a nonjudgemental way. This helps children feel safe and supported . 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 create some seriously intimidating scenes. To sportscast, you could say, "You think you heard a scary noise in your room. Don't worry, you are safe. I won't let anything happen to you." Try to make it brief in the middle of the night because if you make too big of a deal out of it, it could escalate and then become a way of getting your attention each night. Remember, less is more.
If this becomes a recurring issue, then a more in-depth conversation may need to take place during the day. This is where you can dig a little deeper to see if something bigger is going on. Ask them some questions when they express a fear of the dark. Digging into their concerns is helpful in a few ways. It lets them know you are taking their fears seriously, which can be very reassuring. Building your child’s self-confidence during the day can help them feel more secure at night.
In that situation, some blackout blinds can prove to be a quick, effective solution. Unless your child has a pretty severe fear of the dark, I would try to avoid a nightlight. The light can become too stimulating during the night when your child is in a lighter stage of sleep, causing more wake ups.
(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.)
If your child is scared at a younger age, they will need reassurance, but as they get older, you will want to start teaching him/her coping skills when anxious. Listen to their fears, offer reassurance, and communicate the idea of safety.
I would not recommend using “monster repellant” or closet checks before bed. Consider this scenario: You’re concerned, rationally or not, that there’s an intruder in your house. You mention it to your partner, who hands you a can of pepper spray and looks around the room, says, “Nope, I don’t see anyone. Anyways, I’m leaving for the night. Sleep tight!”
This would not ease your fears.
So when we tell our kids, “Nope! No monsters here! Not that I noticed, anyway, so everything is okay,” it’s not nearly as soothing as you may think. It’s easy to see they could interpret that as, “Yes, there is such thing as monsters, they are very scared, and they do tend to live in kids’ closets, but I don’t see one at the moment, so, sleep tight!”
For many 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.)
Shadow puppets are a great time https://www.pinterest.com/pin/544091198708445842/?lp=true.
Hide-and-Clap is a classic, but if you’ve ever seen The Conjuring, you’ll know why it might leave you with nightmares as opposed to your toddler. A quick Google search will load you up with dozens of ideas, so pick two or three that you think your child will like, then let them choose one.
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 less visits in the middle of the night.
One last little tip, turning down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches is a good way to ease them into a dark setting, and also helps to stimulate melatonin production, which will help them get to sleep easier.