Development FAQ: 24+ months – Other

Up until recently, my three-year-old daughter has always gone to bed very happily. However, over the last few weeks, things have suddenly changed and she becomes very anxious and tearful as soon as we say it is time to turn the light out and go to sleep. She cries and clings to me or my husband, saying that the monsters will come if she is on her own in the dark, and we have resorted to lying in bed with her, with the light on, until she falls asleep. I know this is a bad habit to have got into, but when we leave the room she starts to become hysterical, and I don’t want her to become overtired.

There hasn’t been a scary situation which might have triggered this fear, and I really don’t know why she has become like this, or what to do to improve the situation.

It is not unusual for children of this age to develop a fear of the dark. They are at a stage in their little lives where their horizons are broadening, and they are beginning to get a sense of life outside a very familiar world. Each day, your daughter is dealing with new experiences – possibly she has started nursery recently, and is meeting a variety of new children and situations. A child of this age will have an active imagination, and is not always able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The most mild experience – a story book, another child’s response to something or perhaps an image on television can generate little fears. Believing that a monster is hiding in the room, waiting to spring once the light goes out, is not uncommon.

Very sensibly, you have realized the need to address this fear. If you do not respond to it your daughter’s fear may linger and continue to disrupt her bedtime routine and sleeping habits.
There are many ways that you can help your daughter to overcome this fear of monsters in the dark:

  • The first step to help your daughter to overcome her irrational fear is to accept her feelings as real and respond to them sensitively. Don’t ridicule or dismiss your daughter’s feelings, or become frustrated and angry with her. This will only serve to increase her anxiety levels.
  • Don’t make a big deal or fuss about your daughter’s fear in front of her or other people, in case she feels more anxious about it.
  • Talk to your daughter. Ask her to tell you about her fears and what exactly makes her afraid.
  • Reassure her that she is safe; explain there are no such things as monsters. Don’t try to reassure your daughter by checking in the cupboard or under the bed as this may suggest that you believe monsters could be there.

There are also lots of practical ways to deal with your daughter’s fear:

  • Establish a bedtime routine that is relaxing and enjoyable. Your daughter will derive tremendous security from a predictable bedtime routine. Try to avoid over-stimulating her before she goes to bed. A consistently calm and gentle approach will reduce anxiety. Some children love having a special comforter – a soft toy who acts as a companion, and friend to a sensitive child can be invaluable (providing you always keep a spare in the cupboard).
  • Buy a small nightlight to fit in your daughter’s room, or let some light from the hallway filter into her room.
  • Consider putting a lamp (with a low wattage bulb) by her bedside so she can switch on the light herself. This will give her some control over the situation, which should help to reduce her fear.
  • Children can easily be frightened by news footage, films or scary books so ensure that your daughter does not have access to anything inappropriate.
  • Is there a picture or toy in your daughter’s bedroom that may cast a shadow or look creepy in the half-light? If so then move it, or if this is not possible, show your daughter what it is that is making the unusual shape.
  • Make sure your daughter has plenty of physical exercise during the day, as this will help to reduce her stress and anxiety levels at bedtime.

Once you have talked with your daughter and taken the steps above to help reduce the level of her fear, the fears should start to subside. If your daughter still wants you to lie with her whilst she goes to sleep, you need to gradually alter this habit. Start by saying you will sit on her bed for three minutes. After three days, move to sit on a chair by the door. Next reduce this to two minutes, and then one minute. With this gradual withdrawal, your daughter should gradually be gaining in confidence and will soon happily settle herself to sleep as she used to do. If she does fuss when you leave the room, calmly tell her you will come to check on her in two minutes, after which time return and say goodnight. Repeat this as necessary, telling her gently ‘Time to go to sleep now, night-night’.

If your daughter is still finding this hard to manage, you could introduce a simple reward system, such as stickers or stamps on a wall chart to help reinforce any positive behaviour. She can choose a sticker for every occasion she doesn’t cry or call out for you to stay with her. This will allow your daughter to see how well she is doing, with all the stickers she receives.

If your daughter’s fear of the dark continues or worsens, or if other things or events start to trigger bouts of anxiety, you may like to seek professional help from a behavioural psychologist. Children can be taught how to manage their own anxiety, and parents can learn helping strategies.