afraid of the dark, childhood fears and phobias

Your baby and their fears

Humans have evolved to be fearful. Our ancestors faced life and death situations on a daily basis and it was only by fearing the dangerous things they encountered that they were able to survive, procreate and give rise to modern-day humans. And, as a result, fear remains an integral self-defence mechanism.

Whilst fear is an essential part of our make-up, it can be problematic: the difficulty is in differentiating fears that are useful and proportionate and those fears that are not.

Fortunately, as a parent, there is a lot you can do to help your child to feel secure in the world and to manage their fears. However, to do this you will have to be strong and model secure behaviour, you will also need to know when a fear is reasonable and proportionate and when it has crossed the line into becoming a phobia.

The difference between a fear and a phobia

A phobia is a fear that has grown to such an extent that it has become irrational and overpowering and results in a fight or flight response or a disabling level of anxiety. As a culture we use the word “phobia” a lot, but, technically speaking, something can only be called a phobia if it has been diagnosed as part of an anxiety disorder.

Phobias are common, however, and research suggests that as many as 9.2 per cent of children and adolescents suffer from some form of phobia(1). Speak with your GP if you think your child might be suffering from a phobia.

What causes the development of phobias?

Although there is a strong component of genetic predisposition governing the likelihood that a child will exhibit traits of phobias and anxiety, there are also strong aspects of parental role modelling and individual experience involved(2) – for example, if a child witnesses a parent becoming stressed and anxious when confronted with certain situations or stimuli, they are more likely to be prone to the development of similar responses.

Some common fears in babies

Most children are, at some point or other in their developmental journey, afraid of monsters, the dark, strangers or some other common trigger. In fact, fear is a normal part of development as your child begins to make sense of the world around them and to forge a sense of their own identity as well as their separateness from parents.

Typically, a baby’s first fears will involve loud noises. This is because their sensory systems are still developing and although they will hear and feel a loud noise, they will have no ability to identify its source or causes. Typical sources of sound-related baby fears include:

  • Hand dryers
  • Vacuum cleaners
  • Food processors
  • Toilet flushes
  • Washing machines
  • Drills and power tools
  • Loud vehicles
  • Emptying bath plugs
  • Sirens
  • Aeroplanes and helicopters
  • Thunderstorms
  • A slammed or banging door
  • Any sudden and loud noise

Some common fears in older babies and toddlers

As your baby gets older, their fears will become easier to identify but in some ways more baffling. Why, you might think, does the dark suddenly become scary, when they have previously been happy to go to sleep with the light out? Or you might ask yourself why your child suddenly becomes afraid of dogs when they previously approached them without fear.

However, it is completely normal for fears to develop in this way; in fact, it is a natural consequence of your child’s greater cognitive capacity and understanding of the world around them.

Common fears of older babies and toddlers include:

  • Fear of animals: this can range from the understandable – for example, lions or large spiders – to the more baffling – for example, fear of kittens or bunny rabbits.
  • Fear of monsters.
  • Fear of strangers.
  • Fear of you leaving the room.
  • Fear of the dark.
  • Fear of falling down the toilet or plughole.
  • Fear related to a traumatic event: the event does not have to relate to a dangerous situation, only one in which your child experienced a heightened level of fear.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is very common between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. It is a normal part of development and you can read more about it in our article “Separation anxiety in babies and children“.

Fear of the dark

Fear of the dark is perhaps the “classic” early childhood fear. It is hardly surprising; the dark is the unknown and the unknown is the place where children’s imaginations can run wild, inventing or elaborating all manner or creaks, groans, shadows and monsters under the bed.

However, it is possible to help your child cope with a fear of the dark. Things you can do include:

  • Acknowledge the fear and stay calm and empathic.
  • Explain that they are safe and how they are safe, for example by explaining the function of doors, windows, locks and security systems.
  • Ask them to explain their fears or the dark while you show that you are engaged and listening.
  • Ask your child for any ideas they might have for things you can do to help them feel safer.
  • Establish a clear and relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Introduce a nightlight in your child’s bedroom.
  • Imagine things from your child’s perspective. For example, literally lie in their bed with the light out and work out if there is anything you can do to reduce their feelings of fear.
  • Keep your child healthily tired by exercising them in the day and exposing them to early morning sunlight (between 7am and 10am) so that they can establish a good sleep pattern.

How to help your child with their fears

The single most important thing you can do to help your baby or child with their fears is to be calm, empathic and supportive. Acknowledge their fears, engage with them through your own calm actions and demonstrate that you and your child are safe and secure.

However, this does not mean that you should overly-accommodate your child’s fear as this may only serve to make things worse. Instead, accept that helping your child to overcome their fears is a slow process that will involve exposing them, gently and gradually, to the source of their fear, offering regular reassurance, and, if your child is old enough to understand, providing facts and information that can help to correctly contextualise their worries.

Lastly, it is important that you offer praise when your child engages with their fears and that you accept small measures of progress for what they are without looking to hurry things along; moving too fast may prove counterproductive.

Be a model of calm and security

As a loving and caring parent it can be hard to resist the temptation, but try not to overly remind your child to “be careful” in their everyday encounters as this can lead them to become anxious and hyper-vigilant. Also, try hard not to pre-empt your child’s fears too much – for example, if your child is afraid of dogs, don’t hurry them into their pushchair every time you pass a dog, as this will only serve to teach them that their fears are justified.

The more confidence you show the more you are demonstrating secure modelling and, hopefully, your child will adopt similar confidence .

When to seek help for your child’s fears

If your child’s fears are preventing them from doing basic activities, are preventing them from enjoying themselves or disrupting their lives to some extent, you should speak with your GP or mental health professional about receiving help. For example, fear of eating or using the toilet can require sensitive handling so as not to be detrimental to your child’s health..


Important – If you or your child are unwell you should seek medical advice from a professional – contact your GP or visit an A&E department in an emergency. While My BabyManual strives to provide dependable and trusted information on pregnancy and childcare 24/7 via our website pages, we cannot provide individual answers to specific healthcare questions.