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The Kid’s Doctor: Fear of the dark is natural

Nearly every child goes through a phase when they’re afraid of the dark.

It’s interesting to see a toddler who happily goes to bed in his crib in complete darkness turn into a 2-year-old who’s terrified of shadows and monsters in a dark room. How does that happen, seemingly overnight?

Actually, fear is a normal part of development, and is usually seen in children around two to three years of age. Fears develop when a child is old enough to have an imagination, but is not yet old enough to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Try telling your 3-year-old “that ghosts aren’t real” and to “just go to sleep,” and I guarantee you’ll lose that battle!


Fear of the dark is called “nyctophobia” and is amazingly common. Even as an adult, my worries and anxieties seem to be worse at night, in the darkness, than the same issues are during daylight hours.

A toddler has a very active imagination, which is also influenced by things the child sees and hears throughout the day. Television shows and videos a young child has watched, or stories a youngster has heard may seem innocent enough during the day, but trigger scary memories at night.

When children go to bed, even after a pleasant, calming bedtime routine, there are few distractions to keep their minds occupied, and their young brains go into high gear in the darkness. Suddenly, the shadow in the corner is the witch they saw in a movie, or the noise in the hallway is a “bad guy.” These apparitions are very real and frightening.

The best way to conquer such dread is to discuss a child’s fears with them. Talk about things that seem to make the child afraid. Turn off the TV and stimulating videos. Draw pictures that depict the child’s scary thoughts, then have a party to throw them away. Empowering children to talk about their fears often helps them feel better.


Teach your children about positive self talk, encouraging them to use phrases like, “I’m not afraid; it’s just dark” or “I’m not alone. Mommy and Daddy are in the other room.”

Another strategy that worked in our house was the “bedtime box.”

We decorated a shoebox and filled it with things to help make our boys feel safe and able to handle their nighttime fears. In the box were a flashlight, extra batteries (for the “what if the batteries die?” discussion), a magic wand and monster dust (glitter) to sprinkle in the room, and their favorite books.

They knew this box was there if they needed it. Children often want a night-light, and some may even want the lights in the bedroom on for a while, but let them feel like they’re in control.

Lastly, there are lots of books you can read with your children about fear of the dark. Take a trip to the library and ask a librarian for suggestions. Two of our favorites were “The Dark, Dark Night” and “Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?”

Children’s fear of the dark usually resolves around age 4 or 5, as their magical thinking matures.

DR. SUE HUBBARD is a nationally known pediatrician and co-host of “The Kid’s Doctor” radio show. Submit questions at