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"And now," cried Max, "Let the wild rumpus start!"
-- From "Where the Wild Things Are"
by Maurice Sendak

THE STORYBOOK has been read. The blankets tucked in. Water sipped, bathroom trips completed, good-nights exchanged.

Now it's time for the final act of this bedtime scenario -- the one where a little voice pipes up, "Don't forget to leave the light on."

The dark has a way of triggering fears in many 3-to-6-year-olds. Such fears are perfectly normal, experts say. Even the Berenstain Bears are afraid of the dark.

Reassuring talks from Mom or Dad help to squelch such anxieties. So do dim lights, cracked doors and favorite stuffed animals.

What do preschoolers find so scary?

"One of their primary fears is abandonment," said Carol Woodard, co-director of Consultants in Early Childhood and a professor emeritus at Buffalo State College.

"They don't like to be separated from all the secure things that are part of their lives. This fear of separation figures into their basic fear of abandonment," she said. "They are really, truly afraid of being left alone without a support system.

"I think this fear of abandonment is part of the problem of bedtime adjustment."

Christine L. Ellington, assistant professor of education at the College Learning Lab, Buffalo State College, agreed.

"I think children associate security more with daytime, when they are surrounded by moms, dads, grandparents and friends, but at night they are all alone in their rooms. There is no one else there with them except maybe their stuffed animals.

"So when you're alone and it is dark, you're going to have more fears," she said.

Some preschoolers and early-elementary school children also may fear monsters and "superhuman" figures.

"Children have difficulty in distinguishing what is real from what is imaginary. Some of the frightening pictures they see on TV are cartoons; others are real-life," said John E. Northman, an Amherst psychologist.

A young child isn't so sure those mischief-makers aren't lurking around the corner.

"So the mind begins to run rampant. Children become concerned about who's hiding in a closet or under the bed," he said.

Such fears usually subside by ages 6 to 8. "Children are more aware of what's real and what's imaginary, and they begin becoming more intrigued by these larger-than-life characters . . . and they know they are larger than life," Northman said.

In the meantime, how can parents help a child adjust to bedtime? First, set a bedtime routine that is consistent and slow-paced, experts say.

Parents also may need to go through some of the usual steps of checking under the beds and the closets to reassure a child that all is safe.

"And the idea of leaving a night light on is perfectly fine," Northman said.

With a night light -- or even a distant closet, bathroom or hallway light -- the child can see anything within the room, he said.

"You're creating an atmosphere conducive to sleep while at the same time not causing a total blackout, which certainly contributes to the child's fears, because the child then can't see anything," said Northman, adding that a glaring bedside lamp shouldn't be necessary.

One thing parents should keep in mind: Some night lights present problems by creating distorted images and shadows. For the child frightened by night lights, a 25-watt bulb in a desk lamp may be a better choice, Ms. Ellington said.

But night lights alone are not enough. "I think you need to talk to children about the night and emphasize the positive things about nighttime. Talk about the moon and the stars and what happens during the night . . . so that eventually your child can outgrow these kinds of fears," she added.

The more control you can give a child over his environment, the better. Let him pick out his own night light and choose the stuffed animals he wants to sleep with, she said.

Ms. Ellington also suggested that parents and children plan a trip to the library. A number of children's books with nighttime themes have been published, including "Good Night, Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown, "The Moon Jumpers" by Janice Udry, and, of course, "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak.

Other ideas for sweet dreams:

Go to the window each night with the child and talk about the night, so that she gains a sense of control over what's out there, Ms. Ellington said.

Don't order a child to go to sleep. After tucking him in, tell him he doesn't have to go to sleep. Let him play with a stuffed animal or look at a book.

"A night light will provide enough light for him to do that -- and the child will naturally fall asleep because he will get tired," Northman said.

What shouldn't parents do? Laugh at children's fears, or tell them that big kids aren't afraid.

"If you talk positively to a child and then that child little by little gains more confidence, there will come a time when you can turn that light off," Ms. Ellington said.

"And the parent can express that by asking the child, 'Do you feel ready now for the light to be turned off?' "

And someday, that little voice will pipe up, "Yes."

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