Fear of the dark and nightmares usually start to show up around the 2-year mark. As toddler’s minds mature, their memory gets longer and their imagination develops, and in come those dreaded night time wakings with a toddler standing next to your bed (yup, it completely freaks you out the first time it ever happens, so prepare yourself). By now, they’ve almost certainly gotten some skinned knees on the playground or had some kind of traumatic incident (like having the stomach flu and experiencing food coming back out the wrong direction for the very first time), 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 spooky elements, even if they’re geared towards children. Let’s talk about Frozen II’s mystical forest, the dummies from Toy Story 4, and any of the evil witches in the Disney movies, to name a few.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t really dangerous, 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 you’re addressing your little one’s fear of the dark is this… Don’t dismiss it or tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of.
This is where things can get a little tricky. On one hand, we absolutely want to show empathy and understanding when something frightens our kids. On the other, we don’t want to add fuel to the fire. This is why I’m not a big fan of “monster spray” or nightly closet checks.
Okay, imagine this: You hear some noise and become concerned that someone has entered your house. You mention it to your hubby, who hands you a can of pepper spray and looks around the room, says, “Nope, I don’t see anyone. Anyway, I’m off to bed! Good luck!”
So when we tell our kids, “Nope! No monsters here! Not that I noticed, anyway, so you’re all good,” it’s not quite as soothing as you might think. It’s easy to see how they could interpret that as, “Yeah, there’s absolutely such a thing as monsters, they’re scary as hell, and they do tend to live in kid’s closets, but I don’t see one in there at the moment, so sleep tight!
So, instead of creating “monster spray”, or just telling your little one that monsters aren’t real, let’s talk about what you can do.
Ask questions – when they express a fear of the dark or are experiencing nightmares, it’s time to do some digging. Looking into their concerns is helpful in a couple of ways. It lets them know that you’re taking them seriously, which is very reassuring. It also helps you to assess what it is about the darkness that frightens them and helps you to address it.
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.
(Tip: If you’re going to use a nightlight, make sure it’s a warm color. Blue lights may look soothing but they stimulate cortisol production, which is the last thing we want at bedtime.)
Chances of your child telling you exactly what’s causing this fear is unlikely, but it can give you a general understanding of some conversations about addressing it.
Spend some time in the dark together– For a lot of toddlers, 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, shape, or form by a grown-up. 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.
So the obvious (and super 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. Some hide and seek with the lights out is tons of fun as well, just as long as you clear any Lego pieces 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.)
Bring out the shadow puppets– Flashing the flashlight and creating shadow puppets works by decreasing the fear of shadows as well as becoming comfortable with the darkness.
Glow in the Dark Fun– This one is a no brainer for us since Nico’s wish list to Santa included everything glow-in-the-dark. Looking up some games, like glow in the dark hopscotch or bowling on Pinterest to load you up with dozens of ideas, so pick two or three that you think your child will like, then let them choose one.
Nightly affirmations- Giving your little one a few sentences to stay to himself when he wakes up and is afraid of the dark can arm him with a way to stay calm and relaxed. You can work together to write out three lines that he can remember and repeat. Nico and I sat down to write out some together and here is what we came up with.
- I am safe
- I am loved
- I am protected
Remind him to think about happy experiences- Before bedtime, always discuss pleasant events, happy memories, or good times. Children tend to take your conversation to sleep with them. They tend to remember your conversation in their dreams and giving them pleasant things to think about can reduce those scary nightmares.
Offer a comfort Item- Remember when you woke up at night and had seen a nightmare, you can cover yourself with your blanket and as long as all of you was covered, nothing can touch you? Offering a comfort blanket or a small item that your child can take to bed with him can create security instead of laying there on your own trying to fend off these so called monsters that are hiding in your closet.
This isn’t likely to be an overnight fix, but stay respectful, stay calm, and stay consistent. 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 and less visits in the middle of the night.
One last little tip, turning down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches is a good way to ease them into a dark setting, and also helps to stimulate melatonin production, which will help them get to sleep easier. Two birds, one stone.
Parenting level: Master.