Afraid of the Dark
What to do when your child develops a fear of the things that do bump (and whoosh and roar and growl) in the night.
I’m really hoping you and your readers can help me out because otherwise my husband and I are doomed to forever sleeping on a hard bedroom floor. You helped me in decided what to put on a registry for a second baby and I must thank you so much. I’ll start with a little information and a back story. I have two children, my daughter is 3 and my son is 1. We live in a small two bedroom apartment so both children sleep in the same room, my daughter in a toddler bed and my son in his crib. When we first brought our son home from the hospital my daughter was doing great sleeping in her toddler bed, we would put on a new diaper, pajamas, brush her teeth then kisses, hugs and a pacifier she was in bed. We had the occasional wake up and we marched her right back to her room with no problems. Soon however my husband stopped bringing her back to the room because *whiny voice* “I’m so tired and I have to woooorrrrrkkkkk.” (if my son was still sleeping and wasn’t attached to me I myself would march her little butt back in there) so our small queen bed became the bed to two adults, a toddler and a baby. She soon became so enamored on sleeping in our bed she refused to sleep in her room anymore and after a night of putting her back in her room once every 15 minutes for 4 hours I gave up, I was already waking every 3-4 hours to nurse I just couldn’t do it without sleep. Luckily my son transitioned to his crib pretty easily and wakes occasionally at night to nurse, so soon I gained a few precious inches of mattress.
My daughter has gone through a lot of changes the past few months; first we got her to fall asleep in our bed by herself, then we were able to get rid of her pacifiers. After that we were able to move her back into her room, back to going to sleep by herself in her own bed and she has since potty trained (night training all by herself). However, this is where the problem has begun… now she has developed a fear of the dark and what we believe is of the shadows in her room. She spent three days screaming and refusing to go to bed, screaming about being afraid of “sprinkles” (which we think meant shadows after some questioning). Now she won’t go to sleep unless one of us lays on the floor next to her bed and holds her hand, and once she is finally asleep we sneak out of the room in hopes she won’t wake up. But she does wake up, either right after we leave, freaks out and wakes her brother or in the middle of the night, freaks out and wakes her brother. The floor is just not comfortable and I don’t know how much longer my husband or I can do this without investing in some strong pain killers for the back/neck pain or some happy pills for the nervous breakdown because of the horrible nights sleep. I don’t even know where to start to get her to sleep by herself, if her brother wasn’t in the room I’d honestly let her cry it out a few nights.
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE can you help us?
This is one of those questions where I can already predict that the comment section will be your real resource, because we…knock on wood…have not had to personally deal with a fear of the dark yet. (Except for my own, as a child. I required two nightlights, a hallway light and a slightly open door for a very, very long time.) But so far, my two older boys have not developed any specific, persistent fears of the dark or monsters in the closet or even thunderstorms (another biggie that would send me shrieking into my parents’ room as a kid).
And while I appreciate your reasons for insisting your daughter sleep in her own bed — Noah did the EXACT same thing after Ezra’s birth, with the nightly showing up in our room and crowding us up and it was a Whole Thing to get him back in his own room — I wonder if letting her come into your room when scared wouldn’t be a little preferable to sleeping on the floor? Our room and our bed is not off-limits to our children when they are scared (post-nightmare, for example) or sick. I understand you guys JUST got her back in her room after the bout of sibling-related co-sleeping, but…this fear is kind of a different issue altogether. Staying in her room on the floor is sooooo not the ideal solution here, and while I’ll toss out a bunch of other ideas I’d still vote for nixing the “Mommy will stay on the floor all night” and replacing it with “You can come to our room if X, Y and Z aren’t enough and you’re still scared.” At least that would halt the screaming and baby-waking, if she knew she was allowed to get up and come to you.
But yes, it would still wake you up and interfere with your sleep, so I’m definitely not saying that’s your solution or anything. Just…lord, anything to get you guys off the hardwood floor, which: NO. SORRY. She’s depending on your presence to help her ease her fears, which is normal and all, but…you aren’t always capable of being there 24 hours a day, for this fear or any OTHER fear she may develop down the road. Time to help her come up with some creative and more independent coping mechanisms.
First, really try to get a grip on WHAT it is she’s scared of in her room. Stay up late with her one night and see if she can point it out. If it is shadows, try installing some black-out curtains. These might seem counter-intuitive for a fear of the “dark,” but they will help eliminate creepy shadow-type things from like, the moon or streetlights or cars’ headlights. If it’s shadows coming from an internal source — like a closet door that tends to open on its own, light from the living room where you guys are still up and about, try your best to kill that, too. Repair the door, block the door’s threshold with a towel. If it’s a toy, remove it from the room. If it is the old-fashioned dark, get her a nightlight — maybe something beyond the basic tiny-light-in-the-outlet kind. (We have this and this from Ikea; there’s also stuff like Twilight Turtle.)
And include your daughter in it, even if you’re engaging in some fantasy talk. Call the new curtains her Sprinkles Shield or Armor or something, have her place the towel at the door to keep the scary stuff out. One of my friend’s parents, when she developed a fear of monsters in the room, let her keep a small spray bottle next to her bed full of “monster spray.” It was water with a drop of vanilla extract or air freshener or something.
While our first impulse is usually to try to tell our children that “there’s nothing to be afraid of” or “no such thing as monsters,” some kids actually do better if we treat their Very Real Fears as, well, REAL. Just like a lot of made-up make-believe stories serve a purpose in teaching kids lessons or help them through some of the more confusing parts of growing up, you can help your daughter write and act out her own nightly story about this fear. And you get to cast HER as the brave, shadow-vanquishing hero, instead of YOU, lying there on the floor for hours and hours.
And THEN, if none of this works on any particular night, she can come to your room. At least for a little while. Maybe she could even sleep on the floor, on a toddler-sized air mattress, if it absolutely came to that. (Though that’s a concession I’m not sure I’d personally make, because I am Mean and wary of replacing one bad-ish bedtime crutch with a new one.) The real key is to make her feel safe in her own room. Even though she obviously IS safe, you’ll have to employ some creative thinking and figure out how to make her realize that.
Oh, and one last thing from me before I hand it over to the peanut gallery, since your kids share a room, like mine: Noah did go through a phase with some frequent nightmares that landed him in our room. He was…four? I think? It was when they were still in separate rooms. And we bought night lights and read books (There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, Blue’s Bad Dream, etc.) and we noticed it less and less after awhile. But then just a couple months ago I was talking to Noah about whether he liked sharing a room with his little brother, since I was worried they were waking each other up.
“Yes, I do,” he told me. “I’m not alone anymore. So Ezra keeps the bad dreams away.”
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