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