Nighttime Fears: Why? What to Do?

Our child development expert handles a mom's concerns about her toddler's new fear of the dark.

Q. My 3-year-old son is suddenly afraid of the dark. He wants us to leave the light on when he goes to sleep, and if we turn it off after he's nodded off, he awakens in the middle of the night screaming. What should I do?

A. Fear of the dark is quite common. In order to understand why this is happening now and what you can do, consider the following factors. First, think about any recent changes to his world. A separation from a loved one, a new baby, a new babysitter, a recent move? Any change can cause a child to feel insecure and fearful.

Where he is developmentally is also a factor. At age 3, children are engrossed in a world of pretend and imagination, and they don't fully understand the difference between fantasy and reality. In their minds, anything can happen at night: The dragon from the bedtime story or the clown from a party he attended could suddenly appear out of the shadows to scare him.

Finally, consider your child's temperament. Sensitive children are more prone to developing fears.

Finding Bedtime Solutions

Here's what you can do to help your child:

  • Don't tease him (even in good humor) or try to talk him out of it. This can prolong the fear as well as compromise his trust in you.
  • Try to control any anger or frustration you might feel. This can increase his distress and make it harder for you to respond sensitively.
  • Make one of his special stuffed animals his "protector" and include it in his bedtime routine. During the day, act out stories where the protector watches over others.
  • Use a dimmer, let him sleep with a night-light, or leave the hallway light on with his bedroom door open.
  • If he wakes up in the middle of the night, resist the temptation to bring him into your room. This sends the message that he really isn't safe alone in the room. Instead, go to him to reassure him that the monsters aren't real.

Most children outgrow these fears in a few weeks or months. Your best strategy for now is to be sensitive and patient with your son and know that this will pass.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2005.

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