It can happen, just like that. Boom. “I don’t want to go to bed Mummy, there are monsters in my room”, or ghosts, or scary creatures, or just the darkness in itself.
Is your child scared of the dark?
Your child’s fear can also seemingly come out of nowhere. One day they are fine, the next they’re not. Nighttime fears are common and they can have a big impact on your child’s sleep.
Most kids overcome their nighttime fears with some support, however you will find some adults who are afraid of the dark too. It’s called nyctophobia. The irrational fear of the dark is part of a group of anxiety disorders. Don’t worry though, this ‘phase’ is incredibly common and in most cases they will have outgrown it by adolescence.
Like most issues, your child’s fears will be unique to them. They may just be a little more ‘on edge’ going to bed, a few extra cuddles and kisses will suffice, or they may be genuinely petrified. It’s written all over their face, in their eyes and they absolutely will not be left alone. There may be increased anxiety in the run up to bedtime too. Some children will even shy away from a dark corner.
Let’s take a look at why this happens, and go through my 15 top tips to support your little one who is afraid at night.
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Q. Why is my child scared of the dark?
A. Being afraid of the dark is actually an innate fear, though to go back many generations to our earliest ancestors. Think of it as a protective mechanism, keeping us alert for (genuine) beasties at night!
Having a fear of the dark remains a common fear during the preschool years (and beyond), they may hear other children at nursery or school talk about being scared, or slightly older children may be talking about scary stories and scary tv shows. Emotions transfer and unfortunately fear breads fear. Scary books may be ok for that child, but not yours. Sadly, for many, being scared of the dark is a normal part of childhood.
Other elements can also play a part. Our eyesight and night vision isn’t as effective as in the daytime hours. We can struggle to see, and certain objects can be hard to make out. Add that to an already vivid imagination and we’ve got an issue.
Noises (both household and environmental) can seem ‘different’ in a dark room and we can’t tell what caused them. If noises are a trigger fear for your little one, then you can try white noise to muffle any sounds, or you can just open the door slightly and expose them to the general household noises. Hearing their loved ones move around at bedtime may actually provide a welcome source of comfort.
Was there a specific event that made them scared? Think about recent triggers in your little one’s life.
Q. What age can a fear of the dark occur?
A. Often fears and anxieties about the dark start from 2 and a half years upwards. This often coincides with a big change in your child’s development and they are gaining increasingly active imaginations!
You may have noticed their play also starts to develop to become more imaginative around this time. They may start using some objects to pretend they are others for example.
These new found vivid imaginations can be amazing to watch, but at bedtime it can be a different story altogether.
Most children experience a fear of the dark at some point (usually before their 12th birthday) and other children will carry this fear of the dark into adulthood.
I do get parents of babies contact me for advice on whether their baby is scared of the dark. These reactions of crying when placed into their cot in their bedroom is is often related to a phase of separation anxiety though – typically occurring between 7-9 months of age. They may also be more clingy in the daytime too.
Q. They were fine yesterday, why is my toddler suddenly afraid of the dark?
A. There are multiple triggers for being scared of the dark. Their new vivid imaginations can make it hard to differentiate and distinguish fantasy from reality and daily life. It can also make ‘ordinary’ things seem like a big deal. Peter Rabbit for example was once fun to watch, but now the fox and the chasing scenes play on your kid’s fear.
Your toddler or pre-schooler may have also experienced something that has trigged the fear. Has there been anything significant in their lives? Remember, what’s not big for you may be big for them, help your child talk about anything worrying them.
If they are a younger baby, there may be other reasons why they’re not falling asleep or are waking at night.
Q Is my toddler afraid of the dark or are they playing me?!
A. Let’s take a look at their non-verbal signs here. Do they genuinely look scared of the dark? Compare it to other fears they may have (e.g creepy crawlies), are they acting the same? A child who has a genuine fear of the dark will be quite obviously scared. Their behaviour will change and their need for support will be much greater. Basically you can see the fear in your child’s eyes.
There are also kiddies who would just like to continue with a parents presence at bedtime. It’s nice and they don’t want their day to end! After multiple requests at bedtime for the potty or toilet, an extra kiss, a cuddle or sip of water, they may then tell you they are scared. They’ve worked out this strategy often gets a slightly different response from the parents!
In this instance, we can be supportive, reassure them there’s nothing to worry about, but then continue with the usual bedtime routine. They’re likely testing some boundaries rather than having a genuine fear of the dark. You may find my flashcards help with bedtime delay tactics, and using bedtime passes can help with getting out of bed or calling out repeatedly!
Q. How can I help my child overcome their fear of the dark?
#1 Listen to your child!
Repeat their feelings back to them to they can help to understand what’s going on and don’t dismiss their fear. It’s genuine.
“It sounds like you’re scared, and I think that’s upsetting you” is WAY better than “Go to bed, there’s nothing there”.
This helps our children develop an understanding of what they are feeling. This will feel unusual for them. It also demonstrates that you understand what’s going on. When they know you’re effectively ‘on the same page’ as them, you’ll be able to have far better conversations to help reduce their fears as they’ll trust you understand.
#2 Mindfulness and breathwork
Add some mindfulness techniques in to bedtime. Pop a teddy on their chest and get them to breathe in and out to see if they can make the teddy go up and down. Get them to imagine they are a little robot and as they lie down they need to turn off all their little lights from top to toe.
Introducing mindfulness or breathwork techniques to bedtime can really help children learn some calming coping strategies and may help them fall asleep a bit easier and quicker if their body is in a more ‘stress-free’ state.
#3 Thought through bedtime stories
Calming bedtime stories are a great part of the bedtime routine. Choose some stories that normalise and talk about sleep! Visit your local library and chat with your librarian, they’ll be able to help pick our some books that are suitable for bedtime.
Audiobooks are also great in this instance. If you’ve got a Toniebox (3 years+) you can take a look at their sleepy friends range. Your child may also be happier with your leaving the room if you’ve left them with a story to listen to and to distract them from their fears.
Moshi bedtime stories are safe and reassuring and have a meditative element.
#4 Acknowledge their feelings.
Being scared of the dark produces fears that are genuine. Don’t downplay this. Make sure all caregivers are on board with what’s going on including grandparents and babysitters (possibly considering messaging from older siblings too).
A consistent, positive and confident response from all adults will help make this easier in the long-run.
#5 Try a night light.
A dim nightlight can help children who are scared of the dark as they can help them make sense of what’s going on at night when they wake and see that there’s nothing to be worried about.
Ideally the nightlight should be on the warmer end of the light spectrum (not cooler colours such as white or blue).
These Little Belle nightlights are awesome for kiddies with a fear of the dark (developed by a Mum who was in the process of helping her own little one).
On the Little Belle site, use the code childsleepspecialist for a 10% discount!
#6 Watch your own emotions!
Remember, emotions transfer. If you’re worried about them, they’ll sense that and realise there IS something to worry about. Acknowledge how they feel but stay super calm and confident yourself. This will help them cope.
#7 Let’s talk
Encourage them to talk (during daytime hours) about what’s going on for them at night. Can they explain the anxiety they feel? Can they tell you what it is that’s making them scared of the dark? For younger children with less verbal ability can they point to anything in their room that they’d like you to take away?
In daylight, things don’t feel as bad. We can then address the issues and reaffirm that monsters only live in story books and on the TV.
#8 Master their bedtime routine
Calming, consistent bedtime routine. Let’s not change things up too much. Consistency and routine can really help provide a comfort blanket for kids to recognise what comes next. No curve balls, it’s the same. Try to continue with the bedtime routine in their own bedroom too.
Consider using my flashcards to maintain the bedtime consistency and buy in their involvement too.
#9 Build their room as their ‘safe space’
Increase positive time in their room in the day. Play together in there. Lights on, curtains open. Maximise that happy play! If you’re able to leave them to it for a few minutes at a time even better!
#10 Consider their bedroom door
Open or close the door (as they wish). No hard and fast rules here. Some kiddies like to feel more ‘connected’ to the household with the door slightly ajar, and others prefer it closed to feel more secure.
#11 Sit in their shoes
Sit in your child’s bedroom in the dark. Are there any scary shadows, noises that are unpredictable or does the layout of the furniture or toys make things worse? Try to view it through their eyes. The dressing gown hanging on a door probably looks terrifying at 1 AM.
#12 Their own bed
Try to keep them in their own bed. They really need to understand that it’s ok.
If they absolutely must have an adult present as you work on reducing their fear when falling asleep then it’s probably best to camp out in your child’s room to demonstrate it’s a safe and happy place. However you’ll then need to work on pulling back from this adding in another step. For some kids with severe fears, this may be the only way you can keep them in their own room.
#13 There’s no rush
Take this at their own pace. Think back to any fear you had (or potentially still have). This takes time. We need to build up our little ones confidence and resilience and really tackle the reasons why they are scared of the dark. Be patient, calm, and consistent with your responses and the way you (and other care givers) address these issues.
If bedtime is taking a little longer then factor this in for a while, starting the routine a little earlier. This will help them still fall asleep at a decent time, getting enough sleep so you don’t have to worry about sleep deprivation on top of all these other issues.
#14 Introduce a comforter
Almost certainly a familiar object such as a comforter, stuffed animal or other special toy can help your child feel secure at night. We can encourage them to cuddle their toy at bedtime and if they wake at night. Involve the toy in play in the daytime too, this will really help develop the bond and connection between the comforter and with your little one.
#15 Don’t look under the bed!
It may be really tempting to give your child a magic wand, or use a spray bottle to make up a ghost spray!
I’ve had clients with hoovers sucking things up, or gathering up “ghosties” and flushing them down the toilet! Perhaps you’ve been searching for the monsters under the bed and saying it’s safe to go in.
Trouble is… these strategies, whilst potentially helpful for their child who is scared of the dark in the short-term, only really serve to reinforce the fear and kids learn there is potentially a real threat! Why would Mummy or Daddy be looking under the bed if they didn’t exist? It sends conflicting messages.
Getting out of bed multiple times at night? Try my bedtime pass kit!
Get in touch!
Got a little one who is scared of the dark? Tried my tips but still experiencing issues? Need advice tailored to you? Please get in touch – I’m here to help.