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Fright Night: When a Toddler Is Afraid of the Dark

IMG_3932 copyWhat a coincidence it’s almost Halloween because my toddler June is still afraid of the dark. She’s absolutely certain tigers, lions and bears will come and get her once the lights go out at bedtime. Nothing seems to work for long to assuage her nighttime fears. We’ve tried the night light, the soothing music, the stuffed giraffe that makes relaxing jungle noises. She wakes up upset more now than she did when she was an infant. The only thing that calms her is if one of us sleeps with her. For the first month of this affliction, that’s what we did — we pulled her into bed with us, or I’d cuddle up with her in her bed. But I finally had to put my foot down and make our bed a no toddler zone after my own sleep was becoming too compromised (sleeping with a 3 year old is like sleeping with a Tilt-A-Whirl). I was waking up  exhausted… if I slept at all.

I’ve been doing some research and doctors say a sudden fear of the dark is a normal part of toddler development. It occurs when a child develops an active imagination, but is still not old enough to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It can last anywhere from a couple of months to several years prospect that makes me want to tear my hair out but, hey, the joy of parenthood, right?

Those alligators June fears hiding under her bed feel very, very real to her. The mistake a lot of parents make is telling the child, often impatiently because they’re so sleep deprived (um, GUILTY AS CHARGED!), to “just go to sleep already” because “there are no such thing as monsters.” These words mean nothing to a frightened 3 year old. I may as well be talking about credit default swaps.

So my new strategy is this: When she comes into our bedroom at 3 a.m. asking to sleep with us, I calmly walk her back to her bed and sit and talk with her for five minutes about her fears. Some experts recommend encouraging the child to parrot back positive self talk, such as, “I’m not afraid. It’s just dark. Mommy and Daddy are in the next room. Nothing is coming to get me.”

I tried this last night — once at 1 and again at 3:30 a.m. — and both times worked like a charm… until I tried going back to my room and June lost her marbles again. After that, I was pretty much at my wit’s end. I admit it, I couldn’t take it anymore. I stumbled back to my bed, put in some ear plugs and went to sleep.  June came a’knocking again at 4 a.m.

So we’re back to square one.

My wonderful mother-in-law told me this is totally normal and to expect a couple of weeks of nighttime drama as we try to ease June back to her own bedroom.

Until then, a few other strategies I plan to try, recommended by blog readers and friends:

  • Use “magic spray.” Spritz a nice smelling room spray or water around her room before bedtime, telling her lions and alligators are repelled by it and run away at the first sniff of it.
  • Stock up on a few children’s books about overcoming a fear of the dark.  Friends have recommended The Monster at the End of this BookCan’t You Sleep, Little Bear? and The Owl Who was Afraid of the Dark.
  • Forget the night light and leave a lamp on, preferably one with a low-wattage bulb so as not to stimulate her senses.
  • Try to remain calm since frustration only ramps up the anxiety.
  • Buy even more soothing CDs to play in her room
  • Make her watch C-SPAN — instant coma every time.

What do you think? What other tactics should I try? Did I mention I’m eight months pregnant and will be dealing with two sleepless little people in a matter of months? Yikes!

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