Preventing and Soothing Children’s Nighttime Fears

sleeping boy rabbit 150x107 Preventing and Soothing Children’s Nighttime FearsQuestion: My two and a half year old has recently started waking up with terrible nightmares. He’s inconsolable at first, and takes quite a bit of time to settle. What can we do?

Answer: Starting at about two and a half, many young children go through periods of being afraid to go to sleep, or waking up with nightmares. Just because it’s normal, however, doesn’t mean it’s trivial. A child who believes there’s a monster under his bed truly believes there’s a monster under his bed. That’s as scary to him as a real home intruder or kidnapper might be to you. Terrifying. Immobilizing. Very very frightening.

Why Do Young Children Develop Nighttime Fears?

  1. Vivid imaginations. By two and a half or so, children can’t always tell the difference between an imaginary fear and something they should really be afraid of.
  2. Undeveloped reasoning and self-soothing skills. Young children’s abilities to reason through a fear and to soothe themselves (‘That’s probably a pile of clothes on the floor, not a monster’) are in the very early stages of development.
  3. Fear of abandonment. Being all alone in the dark can activate a child’s sense of vulnerability and worries about being abandoned.
  4. Anxiety about change. Sometimes nighttime fears begin with a move, a new sibling, or some other change in the family. Change can cause a child to worry about what else might change in his world that is out of his control.
  5. Tired brain. Negative emotions come more easily to all of us when we’re tired.
  6. Temperament. Some children are naturally more sensitive and timid than others. Not surprisingly, sensitive children are more likely to experience nighttime fears than others.
  7. Response to environmental stressors. If a child’s home environment is unsettled—if his parents are arguing a lot, for example, or one of his parents is unhappy or stressed—he’s more likely to experience nighttime fears.
  8. Exposure to media conflict and violence, especially at the end of the day. Television programs, videos, or stories that involve conflict and other potentially scary stuff designed for older viewers can cause nighttime fears to surface.

How Can I Prevent Nighttime Fears?

  1.  Minimize daytime stressors and conflicts. A child who’s had a happy, good day, spent with good-natured carers, is less likely to have nighttime fears.
  2. Talk about the difference between ‘real’ and ‘pretend.’ Take advantage of daytime opportunities to point out the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary (storybooks, costumes, statues, videos). Help him see the difference (e.g., the storybook lion isn’t dangerous, but a real one in your house would be). Look for ways to laugh together about imaginary dangers, perhaps enacting being scared and then realizing it’s just a pretend monster.
  3. Read scary children’s stories with happy endings—maybe. Fairy tales and other stories about dangers like Where the Wild Things Are –when read by a caring adult who helps the child enjoy the book and be reassured by a happy ending—can help young children manage their nighttime fears. Some parenting experts argue otherwise, so (as with all recommendations) use your best judgment about your own child. In my experience, when imaginary horrors work out happily, it helps children feel a sense of mastery over their own fears.
  4. Read stories about bedtime. Bedtime for Frances, I Am Not Sleepy and I Will Not Go to Bed, and The Berenstain Bears’ Bedtime Battle are three time-honoured books about kids and bedtime, and there are lots more. Reading books like these can help little ones realize that nighttime fears are normal and can be overcome.
  5. Provide a security object. Give him one or more stuffed animals, pieces of blanket, or other soft objects that he finds comforting, that he can take to bed with him.
  6. Turn on a nightlight. A dim nightlight can help reduce nighttime fears.
  7. Follow a bedtime ritual. A calm and loving bedtime ritual—perhaps a bath, followed by two or three stories read to him, followed by another story or some gentle singing once he’s in his bed—will help him wind down and prepare for sleep. You might find during this wind-down time that he has questions about his day, or comments to make relating to concerns. Be patient through this ritual—you’re investing in a relaxing night for yourself as well as him.

 How Can I Soothe My Child’s Nighttime Fears?

  1. Listen. Listen carefully to your child’s nighttime fears, as with his other fears. Spend the time and attention necessary to understand what he’s afraid of.
  2. Respect. Treat all fears—including nighttime fears—respectfully. Take them seriously. They are serious to him.
  3. Soothe, comfort, and reassure with your presence. When your child shows signs of nighttime fears, your loving physical touch and calm presence has a deeply soothing effect.
  4. Don’t belittle his fears. Well-intentioned soothing—e.g., ‘There’s no monster, Tommy!’ ‘Stop worrying, Sami!’—will only make the nighttime fears go underground, and get bigger.
  5. Be patient. Your child will feel any impatience or irritability you might have at dealing (again) with what you know to be irrational fears. This will only exacerbate his worries, prolonging his need for comfort.
  6. Be calm and confident. Even if your child has had a terrible nightmare, don’t let your worry or empathy overcome your parental duty to be strong. Let him know by your manner and tone of voice that you’re in charge and you know everything will be fine through the night. As you leave him (once you’ve soothed him), you might say something like, ‘Good night, Solomon. Have a good sleep. I’ll be close by if you need me, and I’ll see you in the morning.’
  7. If necessary, institute a regular check-in. If your child is too worried to settle after you’ve spent time listening and soothing, tell him you’ll check on him every five minutes until he’s been asleep for an hour, and do it. As nights go by, and he gets less worried, extend the length between check-ins to ten, then fifteen, minutes.
  8. Seek help if needed. If nighttime fears overpower your child night after night, or begin to undermine his daytime activities, consider getting professional help.

More resources addressing young children’s nighttime fears:

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