FAST FACTS: Fear of the Dark

By Gail Conway

Fear of the dark is common not only amongst children but adults, too. Scary images and stories, common objects and sounds we can’t immediately identify because they are masked in darkness, fuel our imaginations and grow our fear of the dark. For young children, who do not yet know the difference between reality and fantasy and depend on trusted adults to interpret the world, being left alone in the dark before they are ready can be traumatic and lead to a lifetime of sleep issues.


Did you know?

  • In a study of Dutch children, over 73% of children between 4-12 years old said they experienced fear of the dark (Muris et al 2001). This is but one study.
  • We rely on our sense of sight when there is light, but our sense of hearing when it’s dark.
  • Warmer temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures at night may generate more sounds as your home expands and contracts and settles at night.
  • In most places around the world, young children sleep with other people, but in the U.S., young children are expected to sleep by themselves.
  • Infants, toddlers, young children and adults wake numerous times throughout the night. It is typical for young children to wake well in to their 2nd year of life. It is only when young children wake parents that we know they are waking and say it’s a problem.
  • Young children do not have the life experience to distinguish what appears to be true from the reality, or have plausible explanations for what they do not understand. Consequently, young children rely on their rich imaginations and magical beliefs to explain events and solve problems.
  • Making light of fears does not work. Young children do not yet understand the double meanings behind teasing,  sarcasm, jokes, or feelings.


The solution to reduce children’s fear of the dark is to help your infant, toddler or young child feel safe and secure. Building children’s sense of safety and security begins during daylight hours and ends with some simple tips you can follow to tame children’s imaginations and reduce separation anxiety at bedtime. It is your responsiveness, kindness and patience that helps your child feel safe, and grows their understanding of the DARK.

Simple Tips to Reduce Children’s Fear of the Dark

Infants, toddlers and young children do not know the difference between fantasy and reality like adults do. Ask yourself, what a child is experiencing? What do they see, hear and actually know?

Avoid Exposure to scary stories, images and violence. Be aware of the grown up images on electronic devices, movies, news and television shows that other adults or older children may be watching in your home. Young children may be inadvertently soaking in those images and stories, too.

Minimize Screen Time and Exposure to artificial light (cell phones/ipads/television). Light and dark helps regulate our internal body clocks to know when it is light outside, that is awake time, and when it is dark, it is night time and time for sleep. Light just before bedtime may trick the body in to thinking it is daytime/awake time and may make it harder to settle in for a good night’s sleep. Some children do not seem to be impacted by having one or two bedtime stories read on an electronic device. Please observe and decide.

Try to Identify the Source of Scary Shadows and Sounds. Look to see and show your child in a matter of a fact way, how a branch of a tree moving in the wind with a bright streetlight is that moving shadow on the wall, or the loud and repetitive sound coming from the other room is a ball being rolled across the floor by an older sibling. When possible, try to minimize the noise, use the eyes open/eyes closed game, eliminate shadows, or perhaps use a nightlight for a period of time.

Adults talk about their feelings, young children act about their feelings. Infants, toddlers and young children communicate with their cries, head turns, refusals to stay in bed and even in waking in the middle of the night. As a tired parent or caregiver, we may punish instead of identifying what is frightening our child. If your child is communicating in these nonverbal ways, try to be patient.

Reduce separation anxiety (over time). Young children cannot tell time. Help children anticipate what comes first, second and next through routines. Be sure to stick with the same routine leading up to bedtime. Positive words of encouragement; saying “I love you”, holding and snuggling children and talking build those emotional connections and give children the positive thoughts, images and feelings needed to drift safely off to sleep. After the last bedtime story is read, sit or lie with your child in the dark. When your child is CALM AND AWAKE, find a reason to briefly leave the room- and IMMEDIATELY come back. Over time, as your child trusts you will always come back, you can extend the time out of the room. IF your child is fearful and doesn’t want you to leave- stay until they fall asleep. Be patient. Over time when your child feels safe and securely attached, you will be able to separate. One side note: your child may want to continue to talk. You may need to gently say, ‘let’s talk more in the morning, now it is time for sleep’.

Adults are young children’s emotional barometers and can sense your fear. Are you afraid of the dark? Do you have trouble sleeping? Even infants can sense a quickened heart rate, a firmer grasp, changes in alertness or tone of voice. If you have fears of the dark or someone in your home is scaring you, hurting you or another family member, please ask us for additional information on the help available to you.

Lastly, young children experience many firsts. It is your attention, touch and voice that are the calming influence. There are so many firsts and life circumstances that can impact young children’s fears (illness, moves, job-changes, divorce or even a death in the family) to name a few. For more information on how to care for young children when these unforeseen family



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Opening Minds USA is the trusted advisor and professional resource for people who educate and care for young children. ⋅ 30 E. Adams, Suite 1000. Chicago. IL 60603 (P) 312.427.5399