11 answers

My 4 Year-old Is Now Afraid of the Dark and Does Not Want to Sleep in Her Room

Has anyone exerienced the following, and if so, do you have any advice? My daughter was the perfect sleeper until recently. She is now afraid of the dark, and she says she can't "handle" sleep, it "hurts her heart," and it is "too complicated." This has been going on since the beginning of the year. I have been allowing her to keep her light on and read herself to sleep or play herself to sleep, but she has to stay in her room. This worked for awhile, but now even with all of the leniency, she is now saying she can't "do this." It is hard for me, since she was the perfect sleeper for 4 years, and now this. If you have any suggestions, I am open to them. Thanks.

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My 4 year old son did something very similar. He was always fine with just a small night light, then suddenly he seemed genuinely scared. We put a small lamp in his room and it is too bright in my opinion, but it has allowed him to stay in his room, and he does sleep through the night.

At Christmas time we used a small Christmas tree and I liked the glow from that better, so I have thought about hanging Christmas lights in his room for a softer light...

I wish you the best!

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I don't think this is about being afraid of the dark, I think it is a test of wills. I would put a night light, and stick to my guns. They go through stages like that, after about a week or two of you making her sleep in her room consistently, she will switch to something else like not wanting to brush her hair, or wear a certain color. Hope this helps.

Hi C., I have a niece that did that. I heard someone talk about something and thought "that would never work!" BUT IT DID!!

OK, what my sister in law did was have an aresol bottle of some air freshener (she got some berry thing that smells sweet). She told my niece it is fairy dust that keeps all bad things away. So, before she goes to sleep they spray "fairy dust" in the room. It has worked like a charm!

Now, when she goes to spend the night anywhere, they go on a trip and stay in a weird place, etc. they pack the fairy dust in her bag and it never fails...she goes to sleep or at least will lay there with no crying or whining...

So simple, I thought for sure it wouldn't work but it DID!

Good luck!

I have a 4yo girl too. Yes, they all like to manipulate the situation and see what they can get away with. The trick is always being a step ahead of them. My daughter used to sleep in a pitch black room with her door shut. Then she kept saying she was scared of monsters. SO I made up a story that the dinosaurs scared all of the monsters out of TX a LONG time ago and they all live in Ohio now. (God help me if we EVER have to go to Ohio! haha). Anyway, so that worked for a little bit and then we got her a Princess flashlight to sleep with. Again, only temporary and now she insists on sleeping with a nightlight. I don't care as long as she stays in her room...and I really attribute that to the super nanny technique of not interacting with them when they wake up. You calmly take them back into bed, cover them up, give a kiss and leave. No talking, no interaction whatsoever. Seriously, NOT A WORD!! The trick behind it is that they learn that waking up is not benefitial to them at all because mom or dad is not going to satisfy their need. You'd be surprised at how quickly they stay in their beds because they know it won't get them anything. I highly guarantee that if you do it consistently for a few nights, her sleeplessness will be a thing of the past.

Hey C.! I have a 3 1/2 year old and she tries the EXACT same thing. She tells me she is too scared. My husband and I both see through it though. Every now and again, we let her sleep with us but normally we just take her back into her room and turn on her lamp, read a book, or sing a lullaby.

My 4 year old son did something very similar. He was always fine with just a small night light, then suddenly he seemed genuinely scared. We put a small lamp in his room and it is too bright in my opinion, but it has allowed him to stay in his room, and he does sleep through the night.

At Christmas time we used a small Christmas tree and I liked the glow from that better, so I have thought about hanging Christmas lights in his room for a softer light...

I wish you the best!

Hi Cammie first of all has she had a big change in her life?
or has she stRTED SCHOOL YET ? Sometimes these thinggs can hurt a child of her age. I do know one thing if she continus to grt her way she will try things like thi all the time it will be come a patteren with all things that bother her i know i dont know your daughter but it also sounds like a attention getter and it is working they all go through phase and i hope this is one of hers i am not saying to treat it lighty but dont make a big deal of it sit her down and talk about her problem and eventualy it will come out what is realy wrong let her know you have benn there and its ok to taklk about it hope it helps MOMMA T

Wow! You just described exactly what we've been going through for the past couple of months. Our daughter (who will be 4 in May) has had a night light on for a while, that recently graduated to a bedside lamp (and looking at books -- even got a little clip-on book light). And now our son (22months), who of course wants to do everything his sister does, is sleeping with a bedside lamp on....

I soon realized where that saying came from: "if you give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile" or something like that.

While I do believe that she was a little scared of the dark, she has used it to manipulate us. Not that she's being intentionally malicious. It's a typical preschool control battle and testing her boundaries -- she realized that she had control of a situation, the boundaries kept moving ("ok, honey, you can turn on a lamp in addition to your night light" then "ok, honey, let's do something else to appease you.....") so she kept pushing and pushing.

The problem was that she became more unsettled the more we moved and tweaked and wiggled the boundaries.
With her constantly coming out of her room, and bed-time becoming an hour long process (or more), and we were getting stressed out about it, we finally decided to just be firm and set a limit. We've been doing this about a month:

First, we eliminate all excuses -- we read a book with her, she goes potty, and she gets a cup of water on her night stand before we actually put her to bed.

Then, she can go to bed with all these privileges:
her door wide open (this helped a LOT),
the night light and bedside lamp on,
and the hall or bathroom light on (she chooses which one of those -- either helps to brighten her room a little).

However, every time she comes out of her room, she loses one of those lights. She REALLY wants all of them on, so any time we enforce the rule, she ends up staying in her bed with rare exception.
There's often crying/screaming involved when we have to start switching lights off. Usually we let her earn the light back when she calms down and stays in her bed. She almost always earns the light back and we usually don't have to go through the "enforcement - re-earn privilege" process more than once in a night. When she loses a light, we're very empathetic ("I'm so sad for you that it has to be this way. I hope you can make better choices tomorrow and get to keep your lights on").
If we've had a bad night where she lost one or more of her lights for the whole night, we talk about it the next night to remind her and prepare her: "Are you going to stay in your bed after mommy and daddy tuck you in?" and "What happens when you come out of your room?" That usually does it (for a while, at least. I certainly don't think it's the end of it! We expect to re-visit this several times before it passes)

Also, I used to turn off all the lights after she falls asleep, but she'd wake up in the middle of the night crying and scared. This wasn't working for anyone in the household, but all the lights, while still dimmer than her overhead light, will keep her from having the deep, restful sleep she needs to stay happy all day (a period of light sleep around 3am is a normal part of her sleep cycle -- normally she'd drift back to being fully asleep, but the darkness made her scared and wide awake).

So, we came up with a plan and let her know that we didn't want her to be scared, but we also wanted to be sure she got good sleep so she wouldn't be grumpy. We asked "Would you rather be grumpy or happy? Would you like mommy and daddy to be grumpy or happy?" Even though she said SHE would rather be grumpy (which was simply her trying to be defiant :-)) she said she would rather US be happy. If she says she'd like everyone to be grumpy, you can have a little giggle about it and simply say "Well, we really like it when everyone is happy, because we can have more fun. You can even continue the questioning with "Do you want fun times, or not fun times?" and tie it all back to "Well, one way to have fun times, is for everyone to be happy instead of grumpy, and we are all much happier if we have lights off after we fall asleep. We have a plan that can help make all of our family happy so we can have fun times together."

So, our plan is that after she's asleep, the only light that stays on in her room is the night light, her door stays wide open, and we keep the hall light on, just in case she wakes up and needs to come get a mommy or daddy hug and get back in her own bed.

We were a little concerned about the part about needing a hug in the middle of the night, but it wasn't all that bad. Simply having the option to come get us in the middle of the night is reassurance enough. She doesn't actually follow through with that part very often.

With all this typing, I'm sure it sounds more elaborate than it really is. Carrying it out really isn't all that complicated. You just set it up, get her on board with it (even if she protests at first, just say "this is our family's plan" and stay the course) and be prepared to enforce it (with empathy, of course).

It's working for us. We just remind ourselves that she'll out-grow this phase. Of course, she'll have a new issue to replace this one by then...

I would encourage you to talk delicately with her when she is relaxed and feeling safe about what scares her and "hurts her heart" about it. Don't do this at or near bedtime, when she is likely to feel more anxious about it. Do it when you are playing with playdough or something. (playdough is very therapeutic!) She may have had a bad dream (which she no longer even remembers) or something bad may have happened. Anyway, you can also pray with her and you and she can ask God to guard over her room and her at night. My mom did this with my nephew (he had been afraid for YEARS and was 10 yrs old) and it worked like a charm. I think they had God bind/send away all bad guys/devils/whatever. Anyway, he is very proud that he isn't afraid of the dark anymore. Good luck!

Hi C.,
Yup, I went throught this same thing. The only thing is my husband didn't want to lose any sleep trying to get her to stay in her room so he gave into her sleeping with us and it ended up going on for several years until she was about 8 yrs.and was very hard to break her. It's either tough love now or tough love later. No matter what you say to make them feel better you will feel so sad when they beg and say they are scared so I really don't have any solutions, just wanted to let you know you weren't alone.

Although I partially agree that she could be manipulating the situation a little, 4 year olds are finally old enough to actually have fears that are very real to them, so I would also encourage you to discuss with her, during the day, what could be bothering her. My daughter became afraid of lots more things at her age, and even Disney movies had to be sensored for a while. She was old enough to be afraid, but not old enough to understand real versus fantasy. Also, the 2 best things we ever did to keep our girls in bed is 1- hang a string of horse lights around their window that they get to turn on (I think they came from a party store, but anything your little one is interested in could be available..princess, soccer balls, etc) 2-if they have stayed in their room all night they get chocolate milk (1 tsp of ovaltine in their milk), and it worked wonderfully!! Best of luck to you! ~A.~


The other moms seemed to have given good advice. But if they don't work for you, you might want to meet with someone you know who is close to God such as a pastor or friend. (If you don't know of someone, I can recommend someone.) Sometimes children can pick up things in the spirit realm that we as adults have blocked out over the years. My kids sometimes see dark figures and sometimes see angels. Kids can see these things much better than we adults.

Also, I would limit her movies and TV time. Even things we don't think of as scary can scare a young child. Even just suspense in a movie can scare sensitive kids.

Hope this helps.

A. S.

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