A newborn? Nope. A 13 month old? Not likely. A 2 year old? Could be. When a child wakes up in the middle of the night and is very upset, as a caring parent you of course worry about what is causing this behavior. Could your child be afraid? If so, what could be causing this fear? If your child is under 2 years old, their behavior is most certainly not due to the darkness in their room as they just are not capable of fearing the dark yet. If your two year old has suddenly started asking for a light to be left on and seems genuinely scared to be in the dark – then they likely are. So how do you know if your child is afraid and what can you do to ease that fear? And why wouldn’t we just turn on the light?
Your Infant is Not Afraid of the Dark
Why? Because prior to age two, children aren’t developmentally there yet. Remember that your child spent almost 10 months in the dark…while in the womb. It is an environment they find very soothing. Fear of not being able to see what is going on around them – be it a shadow or unknown figure is not something babies and young toddlers are capable of having. Of course children this age are very keyed into their parents concerns and anxieties, so if you project the dark as being something to be afraid of, then that may cause your child some anxiety. Additionally, separation anxiety is common in infants and can occur as early as 6 to 7 month, often peaking at around 10 to 18 months of age. As with anything behavioral, separation anxiety can of course occur around sleeping times.
Children Age 2-6 Can Experience This Fear
Fear is a normal part of a child’s development and is usually first exhibited at around two to three years of age. Between the ages of two to six years, children start to have great imaginations, but in many cases they have a hard time distinguishing real from make believe. While a vivid imagination is usually a great attribute, it can now make your child have anxiety over things that he didn’t think twice about in the past. Even after a soothing bedtime routine, once left alone in the dark there are few distractions to keep their minds occupied and their young minds can go into overdrive. Suddenly, the branch brushing on the window or the shadow cast by their lamp becomes very frightening. Being afraid of the dark is not something that plagues every child, but there are many ways to help your child work past their fear:
Help Your Child To Move Past Their Angst
• Add light?
Although turning on a light may sounds like a simple solution, it is actually not advised. We want your child’s room to be as dark as possible because lights can distract from sleep and suppress your child’s production of melatonin (the hormone needed for sleep). It is ok to introduce a night light to your child’s room, but make sure it is tucked behind a piece of furniture so that it emits a subtle glow rather than shining right in their view. According to Dr. Marc Weissbluth, a light on in the closet or even a conventional 7 watt night light may keep a sensitive child from sleeping well.
• Talk About It
Have a conversation with her at a non-bedtime time about what she is afraid of. Validate her feelings, but also explain that everything in her room is exactly the same in the light and in the dark. Often talking about these fears in the daylight helps them to lose their power at night.
• Schedule a Darkness Date
During the day, take your child into his room, turn the lights off, pull the shades, and “explore” the room together with your eyes. “See there that dark rectangle is your dresser etc…” Take your time and really look around and give him the chance to point out anything that may frighten him, so you can explain what it is. Finally, turn the lights back on and show him that all is as it was before.
• Hit the Library
Read a book that explains the topic. I love this Winnie the Pooh book “Don’t be scared, Piglet and Roo.” Others have also recommended “The Dark, Dark Night” and “Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?”
• Send in Reinforcements
Another strategy that works well for many children is to make sure they have an object in their bed to make them feel safe and confident – almost like a lovey for bigger kids. For some children, a new teddy bear will do the job, while others do well with a basket placed next to their bed filled with items that make them feel brave – such as a favorite photograph, a happy book, and a small dim flash light.
• Monsters Are Not Real
I stay away from things like monster spray, because using it actually confirms to your child that monsters are real and something to be afraid of. It is ok to look around the room and show your child that there is nothing in there to be afraid of, but be sure to again reiterate that nothing is there because monsters are make believe.
• Use Parental Safe Guards
Take care to not allow your child access books or tv shows that have frightening content.
• Safe and Sound
If/when your child is afraid during the night, do not try to discuss their fear at that moment. Instead be a good listener and simply provide reassurance that he does not have to be afraid while leaving the lights off. Remind him that he is safe and protected. Mention a happy moment or thought that may take his mind off of whatever is making him afraid. Encourage positive self-talk, with phrases like, “I’m not afraid; it’s just dark” or “I’m not alone. Mommy and Daddy are in the other room.”
Amy Lage is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Family Sleep Institute certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant. She is founder of Well Rested Baby (www.wellrestedbaby.com). She offers a host of services including in person, phone, email and Skype/FaceTime consultations that can be tailored to meet any family’s needs and schedule. Please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions. Be sure to follow WRB on Facebook too more great sleep tips!
(photo by kerrygoodwin.com)