It’s 2:00am, you’re sleeping peacefully in your bed, and you suddenly wake up, to your surprise, your child is standing there staring at you. Then your child says those words that every parent dreads to hear.
“I can’t sleep! I’m scared!”
Fear of the dark usually starts to show up around the 2-year mark. As toddler’s minds mature, their memory gets longer and their imagination develops. They’ve almost certainly fallen on the playground or lost a favorite toy, 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 precarious elements, even if they’re geared towards children. As an adult I still don’t like reading “Where the Wild Things Are” because I find it to be unnerving.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t inherently dangerous. Unless, 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.
So my first, and most important, piece of advice when your addressing your little one’s fear of the dark is this: Don’t disregard it.
This can be a bit of a tricky landscape to navigate. On one hand, we absolutely want to show empathy and understanding when something is frightening our kids. On the other hand, we don’t want to add fuel to the fire. I highly recommend reading this article to illustrate how to have that conversation effectively.
I’m not a fan of “monster spray” or checking the closet for multiple reasons. To put it in perspective, consider this scenario: You’re concerned, that there’s an intruder in your home. You mention it to your spouse, who hands you a can of pepper spray, looks around the room, and says, “I don’t see anyone. I’m headed out for the night. Good night!”
I don’t know about you but I would be having all the feels.
When we tell our kids: “No monsters here!” It’s not nearly as soothing as you might think. It’s easy to see how they could interpret that as: “There is such a thing as monsters, they’re scary, and they live in kid’s closets!”
Dismissing your little one’s fears is not helpful. What is helpful is asking your little one some questions when they express a fear of the dark. Dive deep into their concerns to let them know you care and want to help.
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. In that situation, a nightlight or some blackout blinds can prove to be a quick, effective solution. Black out window coverings would be my preference verses a nightlight. This is my favorite room darkening product.
For a lot of toddlers, nap time and 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 by a grown-up. Nap time and 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.
A 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. Playing 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 fun too, even though I’m personally terrible at them. A quick Google search will provide dozens of ideas, so pick two or three that you think your child will like and let them choose one to play.
Keep in mind playing in the dark won’t be an overnight fix, but consistently playing those games in the dark will help. 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 with less visits in the middle of the night. One last tip, turning down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches is a good way to ease into a dark setting. More importantly it helps stimulate melatonin production which will help them get to sleep easier. Sleep well!