This is one of parents’ biggest concerns when their little baby becomes a toddler – how to manage their child becoming scared of the dark.
In this blog, we will discuss the age that this can happen, the causes and the steps you can take to manage your child’s fears and anxieties.
At what age does a child become afraid of the dark?
Children can begin to feel scared of the dark when their imagination really starts developing, any time after 2 years old.
We tend to see it start closer to 2 and a half years old, but it can be earlier or later, and it’s usually when that line between fantasy and reality is starting to become blurred for little ones.
Before we talk about the steps you can advise your clients to take to overcome a fear of the dark in their children, we will go through some of the causes in addition to their imagination developing.
Is it normal for kids to be afraid of the dark?
It’s absolutely normal for children to become scared of the dark. Let’s go through some of the key reasons which cause it:
Firstly, overtiredness can be a big factor. Overtiredness leads to increased levels of Cortisol – a stress hormone – being released in the body. And just like with us adults, a child’s anxiety will increase when they’re more stressed.
Secondly, and that’s the opposite of overtired – not being tired enough. If a child goes to bed and isn’t quite ready for sleep, they will lie there in bed thinking and their imagination can run wild.
Thirdly, children may see or read things in books or TV shows that can feed into that wild imagination they are building, and contribute to this fear of the dark.
What can seem completely harmless to us adults, can often be a massive trigger for children and so it’s important for parents to be cautious about what they allow their little ones to see or read during the day, especially in the lead-up to bedtime.
What to do when your child is scared of the dark?
These are some of the biggest drivers of the fear arising, alongside a child’s natural cognitive development. Let’s now discuss some of the approaches you can take to help limit the impact of this fear in your children.
Firstly, acknowledge the fear that your child is facing. It is very real to them so it’s important that their worries and concerns are being heard. Dismissing the fear can increase the anxiety levels even more.
Use A Night Light?
Next, we are firm believers that darkness is always best for sleep. However, there are times when a night light can be useful and this might be one of those examples.
Personally, we think it’s always better to try and overcome this fear without a night light, but if introducing one is your preference, then that’s totally fine. Just make sure the night light is red (as this helps with production of the sleep hormone melatonin) and have it on the dimmest setting to try and minimise the impact on their sleep.
The Protector Shift
Also, you could look at implementing a strategy we use for toddlers with sleep challenges and that is called the “Protector Shift”. This is where you are trying shift your little one’s mindset from feeling scared to instead being in protector mode.
For example, you would ask your toddler if they can “look after” their comforter or cuddly toy, so that they take on the role of protector in the situation, rather than the one being less empowered and more fearful. It can be really powerful in overcoming the darkness fear.
Making The Dark Fun
Next, we also recommend trying to make a dark environment fun, but only outside of sleep time. What you are trying to do here is let your little one see that darkness isn’t necessarily scary and that fun things can happen in the dark.
Little activities like doing a puppet show or showing animal shapes on the wall with a torch light can be really helpful. There could also be a game with some glow in the dark sticks.
All of these fun things can reduce your child anxiety around the dark environment, changing their perception entirely.
Read To tHem In tHe Dark
Also, reading books with them in the dark with a torch can be a good strategy, especially reading books where the child character is initially scared but then overcomes their fear. It can show your toddler that it’s absolutely OK to have fears, but that they can also overcome those fears.
Remember your boundaries
Finally, if your child calls out to you in the middle of the night, try to not reach for the light or to take them out of their room.
If you want to use a night light as mentioned above, then that is an option if it’s available to you in that moment.
However, we would always recommend to try and make the decision of whether to introduce a more permanent fixture such as a night light in the daytime when more rational decisions are usually made you’ve had a chance to have a conversation with your little one about it.
Additionally, changing where they sleep or how they go back to sleep, can create longer-lasting sleep challenges which will go beyond your child’s fear of the dark.
Being hugely supportive and caring whilst maintaining some level of boundary is critical for toddlers, in any situation. And when a fear of the dark develops, this is no different.
You may also be interested in: Nightmares & Night Terrors
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