This week I was asked what the best strategy is for helping a child who is afraid of the dark fall asleep at night.
Some children REALLY don't like being left alone in the dark, and become anxious when the lights are turned off in their room. Instead of falling asleep, they become very alert, hearing goblins every time the house creaks, or burglars with each gust of wind outdoors.
Many parents try to help their child overcome her fear of the dark by leaving the child's bedroom lights on, or the hall light on and the bedroom door open (often leading to the light shining right in the child's eyes), only to find that it still takes over an hour for her to finally fall asleep. One of the main reasons this happens is that, as demonstrated in clinical studies, light directly affects the brain's inner clock, and delays sleep onset. The brain interprets the presence of light as a sign that it is still daytime, and therefore much too early for sleep. This results in longer time to sleep onset.
So how does one succeed in not making a child even more fearful while at the same time not waking up his brain with bright light when trying to get him to fall asleep?
First of all, it is very important to understand and identify the underlying issues keeping the child from falling asleep. If the neighbor's house was broken into three weeks earlier, being concerned about burglars is not unreasonable, and talking about it with the child and finding ways of making him feel safe are crucial. If it turns out that the child has a non-specific fear of the dark, using a low intensity night light (7 watts) positioned in a way so that it does not shine directly in the child's face can be a really good solution. A low intensity night light gives off a lot less light than the overhead bedroom light, or the light from the hall coming in through the cracked bedroom door. An added benefit to turning off the hall light is that the bedroom door can be kept fully open, which can then increase the child's comfort level by understanding that there are no barriers between her and her parents sleeping in the next room.
As Goldilocks might say: not too much light, not too little light, just right (night) light.
Dennis Rosen, M.D.
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