Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Around the time my son was 2.5, monsters starting showing up in his room.
"Mom there is a monster in my room. He's trying to get me".
Fear of the dark usually starts to show up around the 2-year mark. As toddler’s minds mature, their memory gets longer and their imagination develops. They’ve probably seen a few movies or been read a few books that touch on a couple of spooky or eerie elements, even if they’re geared towards children. Where the Wild Things Are, for all of its charm, gave me a serious case of the willies when I was a toddler.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t inherently dangerous. But for a toddler, there’s no history to draw on to assure them that they’re safe and secure after the lights go out.
So when these monsters began to appear in my son's room, I had to take pause for how I was about to respond. On the one hand, I absolutely wanted to show him empathy and understanding when something frightens him. On the other, I don’t want to add fuel to the fire.
I'm not a huge fan of "Monster Spray" personally.
Consider this scenario: You’re concerned, rationally or not, that there’s an intruder in your house. You mention it to your spouse, who hands you a can of "Intruder Spray" and looks around the room, says, “Nope, I don’t see anyone. Anyways, I’m headed out for the night! Have a good sleep!” That wouldn't help me feel very safe.
So when we tell our kids, “Nope! No monsters here! Not that I noticed, anyway, so you’re all good,” it’s not nearly as soothing as you might think. It’s easy to see how they could interpret that as, “Yeah, there’s absolutely such a thing as monsters, we do need a spray to protect from them, and they do tend to live kids’ closets, but I don’t see one in there at the moment, so... y’know. Sleep tight!
As I mentioned earlier, I don't want to dismiss his fears, so I asked some questions to dig into his fears. I wanted to him to know that I was taking him seriously and also wanted to figure out what the root cause was and how to address it.
For example, if they tell you they’re seeing things moving around their room, it might be caused by shadows. Headlights from cars driving by can often shine enough light through curtains or blinds to throw shadows across the room. Coupled with a toddler’s imagination, that can create some seriously intimidating scenes. In that situation, a nightlight or some blackout blinds can prove to be a quick, effective solution.
After some digging, I found out that my son was actually afraid of the little tiny light on his baby monitor. I turned it off for the night. The next day we talked about it's purpose and I let him give it a good look over. The monster didn't immediately go away. We spent the next several bedtime reassuring him that he was safe, but it did eventually blow over.
(Tip: If you’re going to use a nightlight, make sure it’s a warm color. Blue lights may look soothing but they stimulate cortisol production, which is the last thing we want at bedtime.)
As you’re likely already aware, getting a clear, concise answer from a toddler about anything is tricky. To a toddler, “Paw Patrol” is a reasonable answer to, “What do you want for lunch?” So you’re likely going to have to work with slightly more obscure information, but we’re showing concern, and that goes a long way here.
For a lot of toddlers, bedtime is the only time of the day that they’re left alone. They’re either playing with friends, hanging close to their parents, or supervised in some way, shape, or form by a grown-up. Bedtime is also the only time they’re exposed to darkness, so you can
see how the two things together could easily cause some anxiety.
So the obvious (and super fun!) way to ease some of that apprehension is to spend some time together in the dark. Reading books under a blanket with a dim flashlight is a great activity. Glow sticks! Shadow Puppets are another fun one. Some hide and seek with the lights out is tons of fun as well. (It doesn’t have to be pitch black. We just want to get some positive associations with low-light situations.)
A quick Google search will load you up with dozens of ideas, so pick two or three that you think your child will like, then let them choose one.
This isn’t likely to be an overnight fix, but stay respectful, stay calm, and stay consistent. After your little one’s fears have been addressed and they’ve learned that the darkness is more fun than frightening, you’ll start seeing more consolidated sleep and less visits in the middle of the night.
One last little tip, turning down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches is a good way to ease them into a dark setting, and also helps to stimulate melatonin production, which will help them get to sleep easier. Two birds, one stone.