It's common for children to be scared of the dark. Experts weigh in on how parents can help their little ones conquer those nighttime fears.
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Credit: Getty Images. ART: Anna Halkidis

As parents of four young children who have each struggled with a fear of the dark, my wife and I are no strangers to middle-of-the-night interruptions, pleas to "leave the light on," and requests to climb in bed with Mom and Dad.

It's not easy on anyone but we've learned my family is not alone: research shows about 73 percent of kids ages 3 to 12 struggle with nighttime fears. "Nearly every parent has or has had a child who struggled with nighttime fears—be it a fear of darkness specifically or being alone in the dark," says Wendy Silverman, Ph.D., ABPP, a professor of child psychiatry and the director of the Yale Child Study Center Program for Anxiety Disorders at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

Nighttime fears can lead to sleep deprivation, of course. That's been shown to affect one's ability to concentrate and remember key information and contribute to moodiness and a weakened immune system

The good news is that most kids who struggle with darkness-related fears will grow out of them eventually. In the meantime, there are proven practices that parents can follow to minimize sleep interruptions and help little ones conquer their fears of the dark.

Talk and Validate

While parents may worry about drawing attention to something they hope will go away naturally, experts say fears and phobias should be addressed and reasoned through. "It's helpful for parents to acknowledge and validate their kid's fear,'" says Gifty Ampadu, Ph.D., a psychologist at the child outpatient psychiatry department at Montefiore Health System in the Bronx, New York. "Use language like, 'I hear you and I understand that you are afraid of the dark.'"

Rachel Busman, Psy.D., ABPP, a senior director for Cognitive and Behavioral Consultants in New York City, echoes the need for parents to validate emotions but says discussions can be simple. "Sometimes, when a child is upset, we engage in lengthy conversations about fear or worry,'" says Dr. Busman. "While that seems intuitive, keeping reassurances brief and concise can help—'I know you are scared; you're OK and I'm here.'"

Help Them Confront the Fear

Like ripping off a Band-Aid, the next effective approach to fear management is dealing with phobias head-on. "Fears only grow when we avoid them," says Dr. Silverman. She explains that each time a child successfully faces their fear of the dark, it begins to diminish. How can parents facilitate this? "Try a gradual approach to help the child face more and more of their fear through decreased lighting (a night light) or increased time/distance apart from Mom or Dad, until eventually the child is OK being alone in darkness throughout the night," adds Dr. Silverman.

Make Darkness Fun

Children may begin to feel less afraid of the dark when they associate it with happy moments. Cast funny shadows on the wall before bed, read a book by flashlight under a blanket, or cover ceilings and walls with glow-in-the-dark stars and stickers.

"Making the dark fun and spending time in the dark is a form of exposure therapy that can help the child acclimate to being in the dark," says Krystal Lewis, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Offer a Comfort Item

Comfort items can help kids overcome their nighttime fears, according to a study which found that using one reduced fear of the dark and children's sleep problems after one month.

They are "transitional objects" between a parent and child, and kids see such items "as a projection of their parent or themselves," explains Gene Beresin, M.D., M.A., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston and executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In other words, to a child, a comfort item may represent their parent lying next to them throughout the night, or could even help them feel braver than they may otherwise be when confronting nighttime fears. "It is the meaning of the object to the child that is soothing and comforting," adds Dr. Beresin.

Krisztina Kopcsó, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Budapest, Hungary, notes that because children can view comfort items as extensions of themselves, they are essentially borrowing courage from the item, much like Dumbo did with his feather in the Disney film. "A stuffed doll is able to reduce children's nighttime fears if the child is told the doll is his/her protector," she says.   

Avoid Fear Triggers

Experts recommend against scary images before bed as they can trigger a child's imagination with terrifying thoughts and ideas. "Make sure that if the child is watching a show or movie, the parents monitor the content to avoid exposure to scary images," says Mari Kurahashi, M.D., M.P.H., a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at Stanford Medicine in Stanford, California. 

Young children can struggle with differentiating between reality and fantasy, so a scary character from a show might present as a real threat when a child is alone in the dark. What's more, scary images can later manifest in the form of nightmares. 

Use Positive Reinforcement

Providing small rewards during each step on the road to overcoming a fear of the dark can help the process go more smoothly. "In this way, the person facing the fear becomes empowered, overcomes the fear at their own pace, and does so with the support of their loved ones," says Joseph McGuire, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. 

Such rewards could include a small toy that a child receives for each night or series of nights they stay in their own bed until morning. Verbally recognizing such behavior can be empowering as well, such as saying, "You didn't wake up Mommy at all last night! I'm proud of you." 

Remain Patient

If one strategy isn't working, parents can try another and may even consider seeking the help of a professional psychologist who specializes in childhood anxieties and phobias. Experts point out what works for one child may not work for another. "It's important for parents to try a variety of techniques and practices," says Dr. Silverman. "Above all, remain positive, patient, and persistent. Remember that you can do this and so can your child."