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Overcoming Night Fright

Megan Deutshce, 2, used to sleep soundly through the night. But lately she's been waking up and crying, saying she's afraid of the dark. "I have to turn on the light and hold and rock her," says her mom, Diane, of Oakland, CA.

It's common for 2-year-olds to develop a fear of the dark, says Lisa Fiore, Ph.D., coauthor of Your Anxious Child. This is the time when imaginations begin to grow; "seeing" ghosts or monsters after lights-out is par for the course. And since it takes a few years before toddlers know the difference between fantasy and fact, they're convinced these evil beings truly exist.

Dread of the dark may come and go and can be sparked by many things, such as a nightmare or a scary movie. Even a change in routine  -- going on vacation, for example  -- may trigger it. Your child will probably outgrow his anxiety when he's 5 or 6 and begins to recognize that he's been conjuring these creatures up.

Until then, there are ways to help put him at ease:

  • Ratchet up the routine Firm up his bedtime ritual, such as giving him a bath, reading him a book, then kissing him goodnight. "Kids find routines soothing," says Fiore. "A predictable sequence helps send them off to sleep feeling safe."

  • Monitor the media Weed out frightening TV shows, videos, or books. While you can't anticipate everything that will spook your child (some tots, for instance, suddenly find clowns scary), avoid obvious spine tinglers, such as ghost stories.

  • Brighten up Leave a lamp or hall light on, or plug in a nightlight.

  • Be his protector When he says he's scared, explain that you'll be nearby to keep him safe. Say something like "I'm right down the hall; I won't let anything get in your room."

  • Do a monster search Before you tuck him in, check under the bed, in the closet, or anywhere else a phantom menace may be hiding, to give him evidence that nothing is there.

  • Help him choose a weapon, such as a "go away, ghost" song, a special bracelet, or a water bottle filled with "anti-monster spray."

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