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Today's Family Magazine

Seven tips for overcoming the fear of the dark

By Christa Melnyk Hines

"Mommy, keep the hall light on," my six-year-old reminds me as I tuck his beloved blanket securely around his slender frame and lean over to kiss him good night.

I've plugged in a night light in his room and another in the adjoining bathroom.  The orange glow of the street lamp outside bounces off the wall over his bed.  He already seems bathed in light, but I flip the hall light on anyway.

Ten minutes later, I'm rewarded with the sweet, even-keeled breathing of a child asleep.

I'm one of the lucky ones.  According to Dr. Jane Sosland, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist, nearly 30 percent of children have sleep problems and oftentimes, bedtime battles can last well past midnight.

Fear of the dark is a normal part of development and one of the most common childhood problems plaguing families of school-age children.  Kids who are afraid of the dark take nearly an hour longer than others to fall asleep.  Without a good night's sleep, children can suffer behavior and mood issues and have trouble concentrating at school.

How can parents best support a frightened kiddo?

Discuss the fear. Listen carefully to your child, without playing into their fears, to see if you can identify a trigger. Nighttime fear might be caused by a fairy tale before bed or even a stressful event during the school day.

"Maybe somebody was mean to them on the playground," Sosland says.  "It could also be there's some separation anxiety that occurs during the day, as well as at night, in terms of being able to sleep by themselves."

Other times, the fear won't make much sense at all.

"Just by hearing what kids are saying, helps them feel heard and validated, which can help eliminate irrational fears," explains Berkley James, a pediatric sleep consultant.

Beware of frightening images.  As kids wind down after a busy day and the quiet of the night sets in, they may begin to replay scary images in their heads that they saw during the day in books, movies, video games or on the evening news.  Pair those visuals with the strange night-time creaks of the house and a shadow suddenly appearing to move across the wall, and you've got a wide-eyed kid at midnight.

Limit exposure to violent images and turn off the news when your youngster is around. According to a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Pediatrics, exposure to repeated images of terrorism in the media can negatively affect a child's emotional health.  "These almost live events can cause feelings of unsafety, hopelessness, and helplessness, which are often externalized by conduct problems," the researchers write.

But alarming images aren't the only source of terror.

"These kids are quite imaginative.  They imagine all sorts of things in the dark that aren't there," Sosland says.

Young children often can't distinguish between fantasy and reality.  If they imagine a monster in the closet, in their mind it must be there.

"Fears are not necessarily something that can be reasoned or rationalized so reassuring them tends not work because they just look for more and more reassurance," adds Sosland.

Switch on the light.  If your kiddo can only fall asleep if her ceiling light is on, relax.  Over time, dim the light.  Gradually move toward the soft, warm glow of a lamp, then a closet light, and finally a night light that is yellow or orange in color.

"Salt lamps are a great example of a soothing hue," James says.
But avoid "bright or blue lights which stimulate the brain to produce cortisol, a wake-up hormone," she says.

Work on breathing techniques. If your child already struggles with anxiety, teach him coping mechanisms during the day that you can employ at night too.  For example, have a younger child blow bubbles to calm down.

Teach older children deep belly breathing.  Have them breathe in for five seconds and slowly breath out as if you have a birthday candle in front of you.

"But you don't want to blow it out. You just want the 'flame' to flicker," Sosland advises.

Offer a transitional object. Comfort your youngster with a stuffed animal or a special blanket to help him sleep.  If you've become your child's favorite teddy bear, begin phasing out his reliance on you by getting up just as he's falling asleep.  If he starts to protest, promise that you'll check in on him in five minutes.

If he's in the habit of snuggling up with you in your bed and you prefer independent sleeping arrangements, have him transition to a pallet next to your bed.  Eventually, move his bed back down toward his own bedroom.

Set up a sleep-promoting environment. White noise, fans, sound machines and soft background music can push back the deafening silence of the night.  Also make sure your child's bed is comfortable, the temperature in the room is cool and put away any distracting electronic devices.

"Have your child take some control of the environment," James recommends.  "Place the night light where they like it, bring their special lovey to bed, or even have a special blanket to 'keep them safe'.  By letting them take some ownership in the organization and arrangement of their room, they will feel more comfortable in their sleep space."

Stick with a bedtime routine. Take time to reminisce about happy events from the day.  Listen to soothing music and put aside electronics.  Read a calming, uplifting book together before bed. And help them come up with a positive image that they can picture as they're drifting off to sleep like playing with their favorite pet.

If your child's night time anxiety continues to worsen, consult your family physician.