Goodnight, Sleep Tight: How to help young children cope with nighttime fears

My 3 1/2 -year-old has started to get up in the middle of the night after saying he had a bad dream. He comes in to our room and wants to sleep with us.  We’ve been able to get him back into his bed, but he won’t let me leave until he falls back to sleep. Some nights that can take over an hour, and he often gets up multiple times in a night. No one is getting enough sleep and we are all very cranky. I want to be sensitive to his fears but at the same time help everyone get more sleep.

This is a very common phenomenon in households with a 3-year-old, as it is the age at which children’s imaginations really start to take off. At the same time, they don’t have a very firm grasp on the difference between fantasy and reality. This translates into the development of fears: the monster from the book may appear in their bedroom; the snake in the TV show about animals might climb through their window. Naturally, these fears are more likely to emerge at night when the lights are off and children are alone. Understandably, most parents feel it would be harmful to leave a child when they are frightened.

But this is one of those parenting moments when what is best for the child is not necessarily consistent with our impulses; when the most effective strategy, in this case, for helping a child learn to cope with his fears, is counter-intuitive.  We think that staying with children until they fall back to sleep is the best and most loving thing to do. But in fact, allowing a child to sleep in your bed or staying with him until he falls back to sleep after having a bad dream, inadvertently confirms your child’s belief that there is really something to be afraid of and that he is only okay if you are with him; that he is not safe on his own. 

The only way children (or any of us) get over their fears is by living through them and experiencing that the fears are unfounded. For example, when a child finally goes down the big slide he was terrified of and sees that he survived; or, when a child makes it through and thrives by the end of the first week of preschool after screaming for dear life not to be left in this strange, scary place.  At nighttime the same rules apply—your child needs to experience that the fears in his head are not real and that he is okay on his own; that he doesn’t need you to be with him to be safe. We don’t want to set kids up to think that they can’t handle these feelings and that they can only cope if you are with them, which is not always the case. We want to empower them with the tools and confidence to master these fears. This is very important to keep in mind, because if you think that you are hurting your child by not physically being with her as she works through her fears, it will be very difficult to follow through with any plan that entails setting some limits and boundaries around sleep. Note that research shows that allowing children to learn to sleep on their own is growth-promoting (“positive stress”) and not harmful. (Here is a good piece on myths/facts about sleep training.)

The other factor to keep in mind is that young children are very clever; they quickly put two and two together—that saying they had a bad dream is a great way to their parents’ attention in the middle of night and ideally to land a spot in their bed. This can take on a life of its own and lead to major sleep deprivation for parent and child, which has its own set of negative effects.

The following strategies can be helpful in guiding you in deciding what approach you want to take: (I never offer a standard, one-size-fits-all-approach as every child and family is different. Prescriptive approaches are rarely useful for families.)

  • Talk to your child about his “worry” versus his “thinking” brain: Explain that there are different parts of our brains: we all have a “worry” brain that makes us think things are scary, like monsters or ghosts. We also have a “thinking” part of our brain that helps us know whether something is real or not. Sometimes our worry brains trick us into thinking we need to be afraid of something when actually we’re totally safe, like when we are afraid that mommy might not come back from a work trip, even though she always comes back. Putting concepts into categories can be very helpful for young children. It helps them process and make sense of complex ideas.

  • Include time in your bedtime routine to go through the list of your child’s worries and help him use his thinking brain to problem-solve. If he doesn’t like it pitch black, put a nightlight in his room. If he’s afraid of monsters, remind him that they are in his worry brain and then go through his room together to show him there are no monsters. If he’s afraid of something coming in his window, show him how it shuts tight and can be locked. This gives children a sense of control which reduces fears. Some parents spray a special potion (water) around the room and use other strategies like this to keeps monsters and other scary things away. The risk with these kinds of solutions is that it suggests that monsters, etc. do exist which can lead to confusion for children if we are also trying to help them understand these fears are not real.

  • Co-opt the love-object. “Loveys”—those special stuffed animals, blankets, etc., that young children become very attached to—can be powerful tools for soothing children and helping them cope in stressful situations. They can help reduce bedtime fears in several ways:

o Incorporate the lovey into your bedtime routine. Bear can sit with you while reading and cuddle with you while singing lullabies. The more your child associates her lovey with your nurturing family routines, the more powerful its ability to soothe her during separations and stress.

o Put your child in the role of being a helper and protector for her lovey. Suggest that Bear needs her help to see he’s safe and that getting sleep is so important to be sure his brain and body can grow big and strong. Have her help you explain to the lovey that the scary things are in his worry brain. This puts your child in the driver’s seat and in a mindset that she is the strong, capable one who can keep lovey safe.  

  • Provide soothing tools for your child. Help your child identify ways he can soothe himself when he wakes up in the middle of the night, such as: singing himself or his lovey a favorite song, or hugging a memory foam pillow—something many children find very soothing. Empowering him with tools for calming himself helps him feel in control and able to take care of himself.

  • Make a bedtime tape. Using a digital audio device, record 20 minutes or so of you reading books and singing bedtime songs with your child. When you put him to sleep at night and/or when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he can play this tape to help him transition to being separated from you. You can show him how to push the button to make it play.  

  • Set a plan for exactly what will happen when he wakes up. Every family comes up with a different plan based on their comfort level with allowing their child to work through their fears. Keep in mind that the more you intervene, the more stimulating it is for your child, and the harder it is for him to fall back to sleep. The key elements should include the following:

o  Let your child know that if he wakes up in the middle of the night from a bad dream that he can remind himself about his worry vs. thinking brain—that the fears aren’t real—and that he has all the soothing tools you have identified above to help him calm himself.

o   If he calls out to you in the middle of the night, let him know that you will go in one time to reassure him that all is well and to remind him about his worry vs. thinking brain and about all his soothing tools. You can help him turn the tape on but be clear that you will do that one time only (as some children will keep calling out to have you keep turning it back on). Also note that while this tape works great for some children, for others it provides just another variable that leads to power struggles. Use your judgment—you know your child best.

o   If your child comes to your room in the middle of the night, quietly and calmly escort him back to his own room. (Remember, there is no need for anger or punishment. Your child is not misbehaving or purposely trying to drive you mad. He is acting on his feelings and needs your support and appropriate limits to help him cope.) Remind him of his worried vs. thinking brain and all his coping tools, tuck him back in, and leave. Let him know that if he chooses to get out of his room again, you will put up a gate or use a “monkey lock” (a mechanism that safely wedges the door a few inches open) on your child’s bedroom door to help him stay in his room. These barriers prevent children from repeatedly leaving their rooms, averting the stress for both you and your child that results when you have to keep physically forcing him back into his room. Be sure to remind him that it is his choice—if he stays in his room then there is no need for the gate or lock.

o   Be sure to use a positive tone of voice throughout the process. Children react as much to your non-verbal cues as your words. If you show worry or angst, it signals to your child that there is something to be anxious about. You want to project that all is well and that he is safe and secure in his room on his own.

o   In the morning, be sure to emphasize that while he was afraid, he stayed in his room all night and now he sees that he is perfectly fine and that the fears were in his head. This is the foundation you can then build from, continuing to remind him about his worry vs. thinking brain.

  •  Role-play the plan. Once you have devised an airtight plan that you feel confident you can implement, regardless of your child’s reaction, tell him exactly what the plan will be for middle-of-the-night-wakings. (Don’t assess your strategy based on your child’s response—just because he doesn’t like a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for him.) Then practice/role-play the plan in advance. This can make a big difference in helping children adapt to the new expectations.  Have him pretend he’s had a bad dream or has woken up feeling afraid in the middle of the night. Remind him to call out to you or to get up and come to your room and then play out the process—walking him back to his room, reminding him of his worry vs. thinking brain and of all his calming strategies. Prompt him to pretend to get up again and then put up the gate or monkey lock. Remind him: “Monkey lock is our friend, He protects you and helps you stay in your room so you can get a good night’s sleep.” Practicing lets him experience exactly what to expect. Remind him that it is his choice—if he stays in his room then there is no need for the gate or monkey-lock.

If you don’t feel comfortable letting your child fuss and protest once you’ve set the limit, figure out what plan you can make that you can stick to that will ultimately help him experience that he is okay in the middle of the night. Some families decide to go in periodically to keep reassuring their child that all is well—mommy and daddy are still there in the house and everyone is safe. Some parents make a plan that involves sitting close to the child’s bed until he falls back to sleep with the caveat that there is no interaction—that it is not talking or play time and his job is to get his mind and body back to sleep. With each consecutive night the parent moves the chair farther away until she is out of the room completely. (Note that while this plan is soothing and can be effective for some children, for others it is very stimulating to have a parent just feet away. All their energy gets focused on seeking their parents’ attention which becomes an obstacle to settling down and falling back to sleep. It is also hard for many parents to be sitting right there and not respond to a child who is begging for their attention.) As you are establishing your plan, what’s most important to keep in mind is to limit the amount of interaction to avoid reinforcing your child’s dependence on your support during the night.

While these are some of the most difficult moments for parents, it’s these experiences that enable you to have the greatest impact on positively shaping your children’s development. You are helping them feel confident that they can cope with the other challenges they will face as they grow.