Fear of the Dark
Help kids get over their bedtime phobia
Flash point: bedtime. Little ones become master negotiators when it comes to staying up just a little longer, pleading for one more story, a glass of water or a few more minutes of TV time. For many children, though, there’s more to the stalling than not wanting to miss out. The fear of the dark — known as nyctophobia — can be a very real obstacle at bedtime, creating a climate that makes getting much-needed rest difficult.
Presenting most often between the ages of 6 and 10, “Being afraid of the dark is very common,” says Melisa Moore, PhD, a clinical psychologist with the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It’s normal for kids to have transient fears; it’s part of growing up.” That’s certainly the case for South Jersey parents Megan and Al Scotti’s three kids — Josh (9), Leah (7) and Sarah (4) are all gripped by fear of the dark.
Studies have shown that many children get over their phobia by using techniques they develop themselves over time. Help the process move along with the following recommendations.
Face bedtime fears
Younger children tend to fear what’s unknown about the dark, and this can create a world of imaginary things to be afraid of. Older children, who understand that “real” bad things happen, often have their phobia triggered by the thought of a burglar or intruder. Dr. Moore suggests that families discuss the fear head-on with their children. When you tuck them in, remind them to think calming thoughts that are “true and positive, like ‘Every morning, I have woken up and my parents are here,’ or, ‘I always fall asleep, even if it takes a while.’ ”
Follow a routine
At bedtime, the Scottis stick to a routine (get washed, brush teeth, don pajamas, read stories) and turn in at the same time, a method Dr. Moore favors. Bedtime routines teach the brain to wind down. Stick to the regimen, even if your child cries or tries another type of stall tactic. Once a routine is performed consistently, the brain will recognize when it is time for bed and the body will react accordingly. Dr. Moore also advises that all children younger than 13 have a set bedtime before 9pm.
It may seem counterintuitive to sleep with a light on, but Dr. Moore says that the wavelength of light from a small lamp or night-light is not disruptive to sleep. Using a night-light in their kids’ rooms has helped the Scottis sleep easier. Electronics, such as an iPad or Kindle, put out a different type of light that is, indeed, very disruptive to sleep. Make it a habit to cut off the use of electronics well before bedtime.
Recognize symptoms of a larger problem
Leah Scotti is the most likely of her siblings to have difficulty falling asleep or to sneak into her parents’ bed in the middle of the night. Her fear of the dark is a manifestation of separation anxiety, a matter that her parents are helping her address. Kids whose bedtime butterflies appear to be a symptom of a larger issue can benefit from an evaluation by a clinical psychiatrist. Ask your pediatrician to point you in the right direction.
It can take hard work and some time, but the fear of the dark can be conquered so the whole family can finally get a good night’s sleep.
Next page: Products that help kids get to sleep, plus links to whip up Monster Spray
Products That Help Kids Sleep
While you don’t have to spend a lot of money customizing a fear-free sleeping space — old-school night-lights, a favorite stuffed animal or security blanket do the job well for many kids — the market for sleep-tight products has been growing lately.
Cloud B multisensory night-lights are huggable, emit a low glow and can incorporate soothing scents and sounds to lull kids to sleep.
Bright, friendly Pajama Monster stuffies are designed specifically to ward off the bogeyman.
DIY types can whip up some “Monster Spray,” either by mixing up an aromatherapy blend or by slipping a cute “anti-monster” label over an existing can of air freshener. We've got a dozen cute Monster Spray ideas over on our Pinterest page.