How can I get my scared of the dark toddler to sleep with the lights off?

Dennis Rosen, MD is the associate medical director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital and author of Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids. If you have a sleep-related question to ask, please email it to Thrive@childrens.harvard.edu.

RosenDennis-1-PreviewlargeQ: My 2 year old daughter is very afraid of the dark the moment we leave her alone. She will happily turn off the lights so we can use a flashlight for shadow puppets, but when I’m ready to leave her and let her go to sleep she gets very upset, insisting I turn on both her ‘low intensity’ light AND her overhead light (or ‘big’ light as we call it).

I have tried everything to convince her that there’s nothing to be afraid of, but she still screams if I don’t leave the big light on. Unfortunately leaving the light on is starting to take its toll—she will sometimes lie awake for three hours after being left to sleep. We’ve tried to compromise by leaving the big light off while keeping the bedroom door open so light from the hallway can make its way into the room, but she insists its still too dark. What can we do to help her?

A: Your concern that your daughter’s exposure to all that light at night may be having an adverse effect on her sleep is well founded: exposure to bright light in the evening sends a powerful message to the brain that it’s still day time, which can delay the body’s desire for sleep. What’s more, the amount of light needed to trigger this response isn’t all that bright.

Fortunately there are a couple of ways to approach your problem. One method would be to simply to put your foot down and force the issue. Even if leads to several hours of crying the first couple of nights, she will eventually learn that nothing in the dark can harm her and drift off on her own.

Another, likely easier way to deal with the issue, would be to start downsizing the light bulbs in both the “big” and “low intensity” lights. For example, if currently you have the equivalent of 100 and 75 watt light bulbs in the lamps, you might switch to 75 and 40. Then in time you can gradually lower their intensity to 40 and 25, until you are able to turn one off completely, then both.

Good luck!