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Reality Check: Sudden Fear of the Dark

Q. Suddenly, our 3-year-old is afraid of the dark. How should we handle this?

A.
You might well wonder, "If he wasn't afraid of the dark when he was a baby or toddler, then why is he afraid now?" But logic can be a handicap when applied to child development, which doesn't progress in a straight line but lurches forward, backward, and side to side.

With each milestone come positives and negatives. Your child learns to walk, so now he can trip and fall. He learns to talk, so now he can talk back. At age 3, he is able to use his imagination and spends a good portion of his day in the company of dragons and dinosaurs, knights and bad guys. Only he can't just shut off this fantasy world at bedtime.

The obvious solution -- a nightlight -- won't always do the trick by itself. When he says he's afraid of the dark, it means he's afraid of the monsters, witches, and other super-creepy things that come out at night, when he's all alone in bed with his new and improved imagination. So instead of fighting his mental inventions with reason, try fighting them with pretend. Arm him with Monster Spray: Fill an atomizer with water and start a nightly vigil of spraying away the ghouls -- under the bed, behind the door, in the closet, in shadowy corners. If he's worried about nightmares, you can make a dream catcher: Find a nice twig or vine, soak it in water to soften it, bend and tie it into a round shape, and festoon it with beads and ribbons. Then hang it near your child's bed to catch any bad dreams that float by.

Take care, too, to read stories or watch videos that are gentle and happy or silly and funny right before bed. And on nights when all else fails and he really, really needs you, lie down on his bed and pat his weary little overactive head until he falls asleep. Occasionally, we all need a bit of help getting through the night.

Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING magazine and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.

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