Fear of the dark, monsters in the closet, or simply anxiety about going to bed – these are all relatively common in young children at some point during their childhood. How you, as parents and/or guardians, address your child's fears and offer reassurance will affect his or her ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Here are some tips to help your child overcome nighttime fears:
- What is your child afraid of? Begin by identifying the fear. Listen to your child. Ask open-ended questions to allow your child to tell you what makes him or her scared at bedtime. Don't make fun of your child's fears. What may seem funny or trivial to you is very real to your child.
- Do not support belief in your child's imaginative creatures. Even stating that you will somehow destroy "the creature" confirms for your child that the creature does exist. This delays bedtime rather than provides comfort.
- Reassure your child's safety. If your child has a hard time being separated from you, reassure him or her, but then tuck your child back into his or her own bed, not yours! Be gentle, yet firm, about staying in bed. When your child calls out, ask again what is wrong. Then tell your child that everything is okay, that he or she is safe, that nothing will bother him or her, and that they can sleep comfortably in their own bed all night. Telling your child to stay in his or her own bed and that everything is okay will teach your child to trust that his or her own bed is a safe place to be and keep them from leaving their bedroom.
If you need to, it is better to join your child in their room to provide comfort than to let them leave their bedroom and join you in yours or in the living room. It is not recommended that you stay in your child's room unless your child is extremely frightened. Another option is to tell your child that you promise to check in on him or her briefly, stretching the time out, beginning at, say, 2 to 5 minutes, then checking in every 10 minutes, then every 15 minutes, etc., until he or she is asleep. This assures the child that you will be there to check and that he or she is not alone. Keep your child in his or her own bed if he or she wakes up in the middle of the night. If your child wakes up in the middle of the night and is afraid to fall back to sleep, reassure him or her that everything is okay and that his or her bedroom is safe. If your child wanders into your bedroom, take him or her back to bed and reassure him or her that their bed is a safe and comfortable place.
- Work on building up your child's self-confidence and coping skills. During daytime hours, work on activities that help build self-confidence. For example, have your child talk about his or her bedtime fears and experiences. You may be able to discuss alternative ways to respond to these fears or cope with them that may help your child feel less frightened at night.
- Keep the bedtime routine 'light,' happy, and fun. In the 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, don't expose your child to scary movies, TV shows, frightening bedtime stories, scary music or videos, or other stimuli that may be upsetting to your child.
- Allow nightlights and security objects. To provide additional comfort and sense of security, it is also helpful to allow your child to snuggle with his or her favorite soft toy or security blanket throughout the night. If your child would like the light on, leave it on in its dimmest setting or provide a night light. You may leave the bedroom door open too, provided the child knows that it is not acceptable to keep walking out.
- Don't forget positive reinforcement and/or reward programs. This can take the shape of a sticker program (turned in for a favorite treat). Breakfast treats, small toys, or other special prizes are some possible ways to reward your child. Use positive phrases, such as, "you are doing a great job of staying in bed." Do not forget to allow the child to discuss any fears in the daytime.
When should a call to the doctor be considered?
Consider calling your doctor if:
- Your child's bedtimes fear and anxiety continue, are severe, or grow worse.
- Your child's fears began after a known traumatic experience or event and persist well after the event is over.