Fear of the dark comes from a toddler’s active imagination– the trick is to help your child conquer fears without squashing their creative brain development. If your child is afraid of monsters in the closet, transformers under the bed, or things that might come in the window, it’s a sign that they have a healthy developing brain. Ages 3-5 is an incredible period of exploding creative brain development, and research continues to show that creative play is essential for social and intellectual development. But when that little brain is tired and the lights are turned out, that active imagination can create real fears. If your little one is afraid of the dark, here are five techniques to help you turn out the light without tears:
- Teach reason while encouraging happy imagination: Open the closet and show there are no monsters, get a flashlight and shine it under the bed, and show your child how the windows are all locked. But remember that reason alone won’t fix your child’s fears because her imagination is still on high. So replace the fears with happy things to occupy your child’s imagination. Figure out what is on your child’s mind, and then turn those thoughts from scary to sweet. Try to fill her mind with positive imagination, and avoid scarey media during the day. Even cartoons like Scooby-Doo, Transformers, and princess movies can have very frightening parts.
- Address real-life worries: Snuggle with your little one and try to figure out if there are real-life worries on his mind. Has he seen bad things on the news? Did he overhear a conversation you had about adult worries? Was he exposed to pornograpy or violence? Bedtime anxiety impairs sleep in twenty to thirty percent of school aged children. Here are 10 ways to stop the worrying and get your child to sleep.
- Have a plan for what to do when your child doesn’t want to sleep alone: For example, walk her back to bad, spend 2-3 minutes taking about what’s on her mind while encouraging reason and positive imagination, give her an attachment item such as a blanket, stuffed animal, or doll, and turn on another night light. If necessary, tell her you will be back to check on her in 5 minutes. The next night make it 7 minutes, and then each night keep stretching out the time until you check on her. Avoid the temptation to let your child sleep with you on a regular basis– this teaches your child that he or she isn’t safe in their own bed. If your child is sick or truly terrified, it’s okay to make an exception and let them sleep with you for a while, but sleeping in your own bed is part of learning to conquer fears.
- Get creative with your night lights: Too much light in the bedroom can impair melatonin release and make it hard for your child to fall asleep and stay asleep. Pick a nightlight that uses red light, or an LED night light that changes colors. Get creative– consider a string of LED holiday lights on the end of the bed, a star projector on the ceiling, or a “moon in my room” nightlight. The blue light emitted from iPads and TV screens is especially known for impairing melatonin release and inhibiting sleep, so avoid the temptation to give your child an iPad in bed. (Here’s my true confession about what happened when I put my toddler to bed with an iPad.)
- Incorporate stress-management techniques into your bedtime routine: You know the bedtime drill– pajamas, brush teeth, read book, etc. Try incorporating some form of stress-management into your bedtime routine such as prayer, mindfulness, or meditation. Even children as young as age 2-3 can learn to relax their mind and give away their worries as part of a bedtime routine. Finally, spend some time cuddling and talking with your child but don’t give into the temptation to stay with him until he falls asleep. Tell your child you can’t stay with him too long, but that you have a few minutes to cuddle and talk. Ask about happy times and sad times during the day. Ask about happy thoughts and sad thoughts. Then listen. You might be surprised what you hear.
Have you tried melatonin supplements for kids? They do work, but they’re not a long term solution for bedtime fears. Although there are times when melatonin may be appropriate for children, melatonin supplements do have significant risks in children. Instead, teach your children healthy sleep routines that will last them a lifetime.