When your child starts to talk about fears at night time which leads to delays in bedtime or overnight wakings it can be hard to know what do to. Nighttime fears can be scary stuff for kids, but they can also lead to ongoing problems at sleep times, which can be a sticky situation to get out of. We want our kids to know that we are there for them, but not to the point that things snowball and lead to weeks or months of bedtime problems.
Let’s talk about nighttime fears – why they happen and what you can do so that you can make sure that you respond in the best way for your child.
Why fears happen.
Fears are not uncommon, especially in the preschool years. This is because toddlers go through a stage where they have the belief that all objects have feelings and thoughts. Toddlers believe that they are essentially living things like they are. This is called Animism.
Toddlers also start having nightmares at around 2 years of age and they tend to reach a peak between the ages of 3 and 6 years of age.
Nighttime fears do and don’ts.
Do validate your child’s feelings when they express being scared. If you just respond by telling them they are okay or minimizing it they will feel like they haven’t been heard or understood.
Do talk about what exactly your child’s fears are if they are open to the discussion. If they mention that it is the shadows in their room that appear life-like in the dark explore them in the day time so they can see what they are. If they mention things like monsters you can reality test with them about where monsters come from (movies, TV shows or books, but not in real life).
Don’t give the fear life though by doing things like monster spray or checking for monsters under the bed. These are common suggestions I see bandied about, but the problem is it just consolidates that fear and can also mean you need to do bigger things to help your child feel safe in the future. This can lead to bigger delays at bedtime.
Do check to see if your child is being exposed to scary things in their everyday life – like on television, the IPad or video games. Even if you can’t identify anything they are watching that’s scary try minimizing their use of screens to see if it does improve the fears.
Don’t ignore your child’s fear. Let them know that it is normal to be scared sometimes. Let them know about a fear you’ve had and how you got over it. This shows you understand and can also help them start to problem solve.
Don’t bring your child into your room when they express fear, even if it is the middle of the night. This can just confirm their fear, but also provide an incentive to keep giving the fear life. Let them know that it is okay to be scared but they need to remain in their room.
If nighttime fears aren’t resolving then it is time to ask for help. You may wish to organize a Sleep Strategy Session so that we can get down to the root of the problem and come up with a plan to get you and your child sleeping better.