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Scared of the Dark

Afraid of the Dark

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

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.

Advice Smackdown ArchivesI 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? 

Signed,
Floor Torture!

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. ( like this  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.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Karen
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Karen

I’m so sorry Mama! Sleep problems are so awful. Last night I was just reading the toddler/preschool section of Happy Sleep Habits Healthy Kids (by M. Weisbluth) and it discusses exactly the problems you are having – kid coming to parent’s room, introduction of new sibling, life changes, fears, etc. It might provide nice complementary info to the anecdotes and ass-vise of sleep comments (including my own!). I think Amy’s suggestions would work, but only if your daughter is sleeping well already and can handle the flexibility of “some nights in her room, some nights in mama’s room”. Otherwise, given… Read more »

Olivia
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Olivia

If I were in your shoes I’d let her sleep on a mattress on the floor of your room or in your bed. Getting sufficient sleep is so much more important then where everyone sleeps. Perhaps you could evaluate why you think her sleeping her bed is so important that you are willing to sleep on the floor because that is straight up ridiculous IMO. I would not sacrifice my sleep or my back just to get my kid to sleep in her own bed. Amy’s suggestions sound great, but I’d bet even if you didn’t do any of those… Read more »

Elizabeth
Guest

Although my kids were always “good sleepers”, about a month ago, we started going through this stretch where one or both of the kids would wake up every night, crying hysterically for no apparent reason (ages 2 1/2 and 3 1/2). I eventually got out of the 3 year old that he was scared…of “little cars”, the closet, random stuff. I started noticing it was about the same time every night and wondered if maybe it was partly a sleep cycle thing. I kow that I, as an adult, sometimes go on stretches where I am waking up at the… Read more »

heidi
Guest

With 4 boys all past this stage I can tell you some things that worked with one or more of our children at different points/issues. Nightlight, door open, BIG stuffed animal at foot of bed to stand guard, and when v. desperate, sleeping bag on floor of our room. Hope you find what helps! Good luck. Sleep issues suck. Of course I have teens now so they are up for hours after I go to bed.

Amy
Guest

This little guy: http://www.amazon.com/Cloud-Twilight-Constellation-Night-Turtle/dp/B001CW7CVK/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1313168158&sr=8-2 REALLY helped with our kids’ fear of the dark. It took us a very long time to transition from kids-in-our-bed to kids-in-their-own-beds-all-night, and there were lots of intermediate steps, like sleeping in their rooms with them for a bit, in between. How can you break it down into small, manageable pieces so that you can transition your oldest child into her bed SLOWLY and GENTLY? What can you give her to help her feel safe? Monster Spray (air freshener or water in a spray bottle)? A flashlight? A stuffed animal? A baby monitor so that she… Read more »

HereWeGoAJen
Guest

I’ve read somewhere (I forget where) that a good solution to scared night wake-ups is to set up a little corner of your room where she can sleep. But the deal is that she has to go to sleep in her own bed and if she wakes up scared, she can come to your room but she has to do it quietly without waking you up.

Now I haven’t tried this myself yet, so I have no idea if it will help. I hope you find a solution soon, sleep problems are HARD.

Thora
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Thora

The think Amalah said about treating her fears as real. When I was in nursing school we learned about modeling and role-modeling – and just then my 3-year old feared monsters under the bed. We vacuumed them up. My kid gave me the side-eye the whole time, because she KNEW they weren’t real, but whatever was going on was resolved by being taken seriously. Or something. So become a subject-matter expert on Sprinkles. We also worked a lot on meditative-type techniques. She imagines a paper and she can draw whatever she wants on it. When the scary, bad thoughts show… Read more »

JenVegas
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JenVegas

Because my brain is still a bit of a new parent sieve I can’t really remember all of what I read recently but the Ferber book on solving your child’s sleep problems addresses the issue of nightmares and his methods incorporate a lot of these suggestions and some other stuff. It’s not all about crying. He’s got some good ideas about how to work with your toddler to handle nightmare problems.

Kim Q
Guest
Kim Q

We do 2 separate things, which are kind of related to each other but serve different purposes. We have a small lamp in the room which my daughter keeps on at night. (I hope something like this wouldn’t bother your son.) This is because she also grew into a fear of the dark, that only hit when she was about to turn 5. We also have something called the GoodNite Light, which you can google if interested. You set a clock on the back of it, and it glows with a moon during sleeping hours and lights up with a… Read more »

Jenn
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Jenn

Monster spray! It totally worked for my 2 almost 3 year old stepdaughter. We took a can of febreeze air freshener (the label? To trick the monsters do they didn’t know what it was. ) and let her tell us where to spray. She did under the bed, behind the dresser, the closet… typical spots. Worked like a charm, although sometimes we needed a second dose. We worked it into the bedtime routine for her and her brother. We also got the Sesame Street book called ‘There’s a Monster at the end of this Book’ which shows that monsters are… Read more »

Victoria
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Victoria

Monsters, Inc. Seriously. Put it on repeat. My daughter fell in love with this movie while it was on Netflix Instant, which I didn’t mind too much since it is one of my favorites too. She was about 18 months then, but is now 2.25 and still adores it. We finally found a Sully doll that actually looked like Sully and he and Mike sit with her to watch that and other movies. The best, though, was when she became scared of the vacuum. The first time, I turned it off. The second time, I offhandedly called it the “yellow… Read more »

Amy
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Amy

Oh boy, have we dealt with this. And my little guy does not like to sleep in our bedroom. Too dark, too different? I don’t know. Here are some things that we have done at different points. His fear started a little before 3 and now he’s 3.5. Figured out what shadow was freaking him out and moved the object. (Worked for a few weeks) Then he complained about things in the dark. So we turned on the lights and talked about how all the same things were in the dark and the light. Got him back into bed and… Read more »

roo
Guest

My first is due any day now, so I haven’t dealt with this issue as a parent, but I have really extensive experience as someone with a darkness phobia– i.e.– I still sometimes sleep with the light on, if my husband’s out-of-town. And I guess this might not work as a solution, since your kids share a room, but there’s really nothing wrong with just leaving the lights on, if the fear is just about what you can’t see that’s in the room with you. Might be something to consider, at least until the little-est is in the room with… Read more »

Erin
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Erin

Thanks everyone! She does actually sleeping with three nightlights, one is similar to the twilight turtle. I don’t have a problem with her sleeping in our bed as both did it for months as babies and then she did for months after my son was born. But she moves and kicks and rolls and just moves so much she wakes me up. The past two weeks we have let her climb into our bed to fall back asleep then I move her back to her own room where she sleeps until morning. I’m gonna try some of these suggestions and… Read more »

Julie
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Julie

One more to add – do you have any pets? I remember reading someplace that having a pet to sleep in the room and “guard” the kid is a good way to deal with fear of the dark, even if it’s just a fish. And I have found in the past that some of the nights when my son (now 2.5) hasn’t wanted to settle down for some reason, making the kitty “sleep with him” (shutting the cat in the room until the kid fell asleep) did work. Along the lines of smoothing the bad dreams away, you could get… Read more »

Meg
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Meg

Sooo my phone won’t let me see the comments and I’m therefore sorry if this has been suggested, but; Christmas lights.

They worked for me when I was new to living alone as a teen, and they worked for my exbf’s daughter when she went through the afraid-of-the-dark adventure between 3 1/2 and 4 years old. A string of them around the room was soft enough to let her sleep but light and pretty enough to soothe/distract her from her fears.

Whozat
Guest

Lots of good ideas here. We’ve not dealt with this as parents yet (our daughter is 33 mos, sleeps with us) but my partner had major night-fear issues as a kid, so if/when it comes up, I’m sure she’ll be in there battling the monsters for her 🙂 The suggestion about having a pet “guard” the bedroom reminded me of a story, though. When I was little, I got up one night because I was scared. My older sister (a teen at the time) suggested that I take the cat back to be with me, because when she was a… Read more »

Dani
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Dani

Read Ferber.  He has a great section on nighttime fears.  My 2.5 year old is in the same phase, basically around this age many kids need nightlight to re-orient themselves if they wake up and door open to feel connected to the house, o/w they feel very alone. Some kids however the nightlight creates shadows – this is more fearful for them.  Your daughter is going through a classic stage for her age.  Good luck.  And Ferber, the cry it out guy, says definitely DON”T let this kind of kid cry it out.  Her fears are real and will become… Read more »

Eri
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Eri

I was the youngest of four. My mom was exhausted by the time I arrived. My mom put two sleeping bags (one for me, another for my sister) right under her bed and if we had a nightmare or got scared we were welcome to go sleep beside her bed in the sleeping bag. She got the sleep she needed, and we got the comfort we wanted. Also, role play whatever you do with the child. If she know what is the appropriate behavior for this and practice it she will be more likely to do it. Pretend she sees… Read more »

Wallydraigle
Guest

We went through this a few months ago. She was still in a crib then, so it wasn’t so hard to keep her in bed. But I think I can still help. . First, put in a night light. I put it behind something that will mask the direct glare of the night light from the kids’ vantage points, but will give a nice, soft glow in the room. We actually started with night lights when the kids were very small. Thanks to my fantastic DNA, she started having horrible nightmares around nine months. I’ve read that soft, indirect light… Read more »

liz
Guest

Monster repellent. We used a can of RID which has a lovely big stop sign on it. And I would “spray” everywhere my son told me to. “Sshpttt, sshpttt, sshpttt” I would say as I “sprayed” the monster repellent into the closet, in the corner, all over the window, under the bed, and around the door.

Then I would vigorously brush the bad dreams out of his hair (scrubbing with my hands like I was shampooing his hair), and dust off his pillow to get the bad dreams off of that, too.

MJH
Guest
MJH

I was a kid with a fear of things that go bump in the night, and my parents’ room was across the house, which meant a scary dark family room, kitchen, and living room between us. Their rule was never to allow us in their bed, but my brother and I spent quite a few nights in our sleeping bags on their floor. We just wandered over there whenever we woke up and went to back to sleep; they never woke up. It was a solution that, while not ideal, saved their sleep (and ours) and we eventually transitioned back… Read more »

Sarah
Guest
Sarah

ACK! I do not want this to turn into some kind of mommy drama, but promise to really RESEARCH Ferber before you use it. Please. Really.

We did like the no-cry sleep solution by Elizabeth Pantly when he was a toddler. He is almost 5 now and occasionally ” feels afraid” Since we are biog science nerds we use the http://www.amazon.com/Discovery-Illuminated-Remote-Control-Lunar/dp/B0045GZAFA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1313426894&sr=8-1

moon light! Love it.

Kim
Guest
Kim

My oldest would not sleep in her bed. She was sleeping with us. No real reason as to why she wouldn’t sleep in her bed, just that she wanted to sleep in Mommy/Daddy’s bed. Finally, we had had enough. I started to think that the real reason was that she wanted a big bed like us and converted her toddler bed into a full size bed. I also thought that maybe she liked having someone sleep next to her, so I moved her 1 1/2 year old sister in with her. Problem solved! We do have to lay with them… Read more »

Katina
Guest

My sister and I were full on scared of the dark didn’t sleep with the doors closed in the slightest until junior high types. We also spent most nights sleeping in one or the other’s bed (I guess my mom got sick and tired of us sneaking into each other’s room). I remember being frightened of our kitten as her name was Tiger and I had an irrational fear that she would grow into the size of a tiger at night so I refused to let her sleep in my room. And my sister was scared of Cookie Monster (loved… Read more »

wealhtheow
Guest
wealhtheow

HA HA HA HA HA! (Please imagine this as bitter laughter born of experience). Honey, I KNOW. I know what you are going through, and how difficult it is. Here is what we’ve tried: counting the monsters out of the room (one, two, three, goodbye monsters); twilight turlte; soft music on repeat; earning small prizes for sleeping in bed all night; getting toys taken away for not sleeping in bed all night; us sleeping on his floor; him sleeping in our bed; the boy and i in our bed and my husband on the couch (only in desperate circumstances); bitter… Read more »

Heather
Guest
Heather

Why not let her sleep on your floor? When I was a kid if we were scared we were allowed to come into our parents room for comfort, but if we wanted to stay we had to cuddle up with a blanky and pillow on the floor. It was enough to ward off fear, but definitely not habit forming (even as a kid I knew the floor wasn’t as comfy as my bed). I’d calm down, maybe stay for an hour or so, and then go back to my bed.

Heather S.
Guest
Heather S.

Hello. I was wondering if you ever found out for sure what the “sprinkles” were? My daughter is 3.5 years old and sees what she calls sprinkles in the shadows of our bedroom at night. She is afraid of them and often falls asleep with the covers over her head. I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s a particular shadow or something else entirely… I hope to hear from you but, if it’s been too long and this has been forgotten, I understand. Just thought I’d try. 🙂 In the meantime, I’ll use some of the suggestions listed here.… Read more »