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Challenges & Solutions / Bedtime

Learning How to Manage Nighttime Fears

By: Dr. Susan Bartell

For parents of young children, bedtime is frequently a stressful part of the day. This is understandable because developmentally, it is normal for toddlers and preschoolers to struggle with separation issues which can be triggered at bedtime when the lights are about to dim and mom or dad are inching their way out of the bedroom. In addition, as children grow and gain confidence to venture out in their world, they begin having new, possibly scary experiences (e.g. a noisy fire engine, dog barking loudly, a strongly disliked food) that can be fodder for nightmares. When a child has experienced even one nightmare, they may become resistant to going to sleep because they are afraid of having another one. Finally, some children are afraid of the dark—or more accurately, what might happen in the dark (monsters, ghosts, robbers). For all these reasons, bedtime can result in crying, tantrums, and refusal to settle down, causing dread and stress for parents.

It can be tempting to stay in your child’s room until they fall asleep, thereby easily preventing the emotional distress created by struggling through the bedtime transition. In the short-run it works—your child slips into sleep and you creep out of the room. However, in the long-run, it is far healthier to help your child learn ways to manage their scared or anxious feelings independently, so that they don’t always need you to be available to soothe them. It is also important to note that if your presence is the only way that your child’s nighttime fears are soothed, you could be stuck for hours in a frustrating bedtime struggle—unable to leave until your child is sleeping, and on call whenever they wake up at night. It is far better to teach your child ways to manage their own fears, so that at night, and in any other scary situations, they are can become self-reliant.

It can be challenging to rationalize with a child’s fears of monsters, the dark, burglars, and the anticipation of bad dreams because the part of their brain that thinks rationally won’t develop for a few more years. Therefore, the way you manage these fears is important—the right way can diminish them, but the wrong way can reinforce, and even make the fears stronger.

It is important to acknowledge and accept your child’s fears as real, rather than arguing that ‘there is nothing to be afraid of’, or ‘it’s silly to worry about things that aren’t real.’ It doesn’t matter that the monsters aren’t real or that the dark isn’t inherently scary, the fear itself is real and your child could feel even more fearful if mom or dad don’t acknowledge their feelings.

Next, it is important to take steps to mitigate your child’s fear. Young children need help to separate reality from their fears. For example, when a child is afraid of the dark it can be helpful to look together at objects in their room with the lights both on and off. Help them to see that the object may look different but it is still the same thing. For a child fearful of monsters, I suggest not doing the ‘monster search’ every night. This simply reinforces the existence of monsters because why else would you be searching for them? Instead, encourage your child to describe their scary monster—draw pictures of it and then turn it into a cuter, more colorful, funnier version. This teaches the powerful lesson that we have control over our thoughts and fears.

There is scientific evidence that supports the benefit of giving your child a security object like a doll or stuffed animal, to help with nighttime fears, including the fear of nightmares. Whether the child sees the toy as a protector or one needing protection, it has been shown to have a calming effect on bedtimes fears.

Baby’s First has created a doll, Dino Roar, that specifically addresses this very challenge. He is a soft, washable, adorable doll, with some special ‘powers’ that can be very helpful when a child is scared. With a press on his tummy, Dino roars away fears in a child’s voice. And since your child controls the use of the ‘voice’ mechanism, they are empowered to learn to use a tool that can help reduce fears to be able to relax themselves into sleep.

Finally, there are a couple of steps that parents can take prior to bedtime to reduce the chance that a child will experience fears at bedtime. Daytime stress, such as a teacher or parent who yells a lot, bullying by a peer, or a lack of a predictable routine can all be the fodder for nighttime fears. It is therefore valuable to reflect on your child’s daily life to see if any changes might be beneficial. Too much screen time, or overstimulating media can also induce nighttime fears. Be sure to limit your child’s screen time to no more than two hours a day (total for all screens combined), heed age ratings for all media, and end all screen time at least one hour before bedtime.

By following all these suggestions, you will begin to see a reduction in your child’s nighttime fears and an increase in their ability to enjoy bedtime and sleep.

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized child and parenting psychologist, consultant, speaker and author. For over twenty-five years she has been guiding parents to raise happy, healthy and well-adjusted children by helping them to understand the developmental needs of their child at every age and by providing strategies to help parents and children through challenging times at every stage of childhood. 

To reach Dr. Susan Bartell: (516)944-5856 | www.drsusanbartell.com