What to do when your toddler's afraid of the dark

Nighttime fears are normal! But you can make the dark less scary with these tips.
Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Ange Schellenberg thinks she can trace two-year-old Xander’s fear of the dark to the night the power failed at her parents’ farmhouse. “The lights went out while we were in the basement and it scared him. Now any time he’s in a dark room, he says, ‘It’s like Poppa’s house.’ Since then he needs to have all the lights on that we can find!”

Xander’s bedtime routine is now a pretty bright affair. “We read Goodnight Moon at bedtime, so he decided he needed a moon in his room,” says Schellenberg. “We changed his light fixture to a dome-shaped light on a dimmer—we turn on the “moon” and when it’s time for him to go to sleep, we dim it down. He also has a lamp and two night lights.”

After Xander’s asleep, his parents tiptoe in and turn off all but one night light. “But sometimes if he wakes up in the night, he’ll scream at us from his room, ‘I need my moon, I need my moon!’” says Schellenberg.

Fear of the dark is very common among toddlers. It’s also a sign of a child’s developmental progress, says Maureen Girvan, an instructor of early learning and child care and teacher education at Red Deer College in Red Deer, Alta. “To younger babies, when they can’t see something, it no longer exists. Now they’ve figured out that when the lights go out, things still exist out there.”

Another factor is the growth of children’s imagination. “They don’t separate reality and fantasy very well at this age,” says Girvan. “Their dreams can be like reality to them. And their imagination is so vivid.”

So what can help to calm these nighttime fears? You will, of course, tell your toddler — probably every single night — that her room is cozy and safe even in the dark. But talking on its own is not going to be enough for a toddler. What else can you try?

Let there be light. A night light — or in Xander’s case, three — is the obvious place to start. “This won’t last forever, but it might be a few years where they need the reassurance of that night light, or the door a little bit open and the hall light on,” says Girvan. Or it may take a bit longer: “I still sleep with the bathroom light on,” admits Carla Hitchcock, executive director of the Fredericton Regional Family Resource Centre. For her little nephew, a flashlight to keep under his pillow did the trick.

A reassuring bedtime routine. “The nighttime rituals — cuddling with a story, a prayer, a favourite lullaby — these things help a child feel safe,” says Girvan.

If your child is afraid of what might be in the dark, says Hitchcock, you can add a couple of new steps: “Check the closet and see that there’s nothing there. Look under the bed. It takes an extra five minutes.” (Don’t do this, though, if your child isn’t worried about what’s under the bed, or you’ll just be introducing something new to be afraid of!)

Soothing distractions. Find something to redirect your child’s focus. Music, or one of those lights that projects images onto the ceiling, might be just the ticket, suggests Girvan.

Don’t add fuel to the fire. On the other hand, scary fairy tales or DVDs are not so great for toddlers who are not at all sure what’s real and what’s not. “Stories with goblins or other scary things can actually help children who are a little older work through their fears,” says Girvan. “But at this young age I would rather not be putting those ideas in a child’s head.”

However you handle it, says Girvan, your own behaviour is a powerful cue to your child. “Try to convey a sense of calm. No matter how exhausted you are and how persistent this has been, just staying calm and relaxed and showing them that you are not worried is important.”

Read more:
How to handle nighttime fears>
Bedtime books we love>
6 ways to help your child get a good night’s sleep>

For more information on bedtime routines for toddlers, check out this video:

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