Fear of darkness in children is completely normal and is considered to be a healthy part of your little one's development. It usually starts in early childhood when your toddler's cognitive abilities and imaginations expand, however most children learn to overcome their fear of the darkness by the time they reach the age of 8. Research has shown that a child's fear of the dark is linked to the loss of visual stimuli - not being able to see what's around them can cause feelings of anxiety.
Some children are afraid of the dark for no specific reason. Others may have heard a scary story, watched scary movies, or are going through a difficult phase in their little lives. Regardless of what started this phobia, there are a few simple steps that parents can take to help their children overcome these fears.
The common physical and emotional symptoms associated with nighttime fears are:
- Trouble sleeping
- Chest tightness
- Upset stomach
- Anxiety or panic
- Irrational fears
- Feeling powerless
- Night sweats
How to help your child overcome fears
It can feel frustrating when your child struggles to fall asleep due to their fear of the dark, but there are some steps you can take to help ease your child's fears of the darkness.
Identify your child's fear
What is your child scared of? Listen to what they're scared of and ask open-ended questions to understand why it's having such an effect on their sleep. Although your child's fears can seem silly, don't laugh at them. What may seem trivial to you, is very real for your child so try to reassure them that things are OK and it's ok to feel afraid.
Use a night light
A night light can be extremely beneficial in conquering your child's fear of the dark. You need to ensure you have one that is no brighter than 7 watts and you should look for one that uses a yellow or amber coloured light bulb rather than white or blue light as this can affect your child's sleep.
Alternatively, leaving your child's door slightly ajar with a low-level hallway light on can also help.
Use a comfort toy
As long as your child is over 12 months old, you can let them sleep with a comforter such as a stuffed animal or blanket to help them feel more secure and less afraid throughout the night.
Build up your child's self-confidence
During the day work on activities that help to build up your child's self-confidence. Give them tasks that might be slightly out of their comfort zone & praise them for completing the successfully. This may help with them feeling confident and secure in themselves.
Create a calming bedtime routine
Taking a warm, relaxing bath, getting into fresh pyjamas, and reading books are a few things you might want to consider adding to your child's bedtime routine. Not only is a calming bedtime routine great to help your little one de-stress, but it's also been proven to help them fall asleep faster, which means less time fearing the darkness.
Read books about overcoming fear of the dark
Reading books about overcoming fears of the dark has been proven to reduce nighttime fears in children over the course of 2 weeks. When older kids still believe that it’s possible a monster might be lurking under the bed, remind them that this is just their imagination playing tricks on them —especially if they're having trouble sleeping.
Deep breathing and gentle exercise with your child before bedtime can help them to manage the stress related to their phobia.
What to avoid
When it comes to addressing your child's fears of the dark, it's really important to validate their feelings and offer solutions. There are a few things you want to ensure you steer clear of, including:
Teasing Your Child
Teasing your child about their fear will only make them feel embarrassed, at all costs you should avoid calling them names like 'cry baby' or 'scaredy cat'. Most fears that adults have aren't rational either - like the fear of public speaking or fear of flying so ensure that you respect your child's feelings.
Scaring Your Child
It's really important that children face their fears slowly and gradually. Avoid doing anything too drastic to get them to overcome their phobias. Forcing them to sit in a dark room or to watch a scary movie when they're afraid of the dark will only have negative repercussions and lengthen their fears.
When to seek professional medical advice
In most cases, your child's fear of the dark will disappear as they grow up and mature through childhood, but if their specific phobias are affecting their daily life then you may wish to seek a diagnosis from a medical professional.
A healthcare professional may give you some simple strategies to try to improve your child's sleep and reduce their fears and this should clear up your child's symptoms within several weeks. However, if your doctor believes that your child may have anxiety or a severe phobia, they may be referred to a mental health professional for a more in-depth diagnosis.
You may consider seeking medical treatment for your child's phobia if:
- They are showing signs of being increasingly anxious
- They avoid certain situations such as sleepovers due to their fear of the dark
- Their extreme fear hasn't subsided after 6 months
Popular treatment options include:
This is a type of treatment that exposes children to their phobias until it no longer triggers an anxious or panicked response. The latest evidence-based research has shown that exposure to fears can be highly beneficial in dealing with your child's fears and has been proven to work in as little as one session.
This type of therapy helps older children understand and rationalise their phobias and replace them with more positive thoughts. It can teach your little one the skills needed to successfully reduce anxiety and fear.
In general, your child's fear of the dark won't require any medical intervention. However, if their fear is affecting their everyday life making it difficult for them to get adequate sleep then it may require further treatment.
Need a little support?
Navigating child sleep is tough. A bit like a rollercoaster that you want to get off. Don't fret! We offer ongoing sleep support to the families that are using our Sleep Series courses on a daily basis. Via the Sleep Series Community on Facebook Erica provides expert-led support and conducts weekly live Q&A sessions to families seeking guidance while working through their course. We support families with their children's sleep from birth to 10 years of age via these video-based sleep courses.