Overcoming bedtime fears
Bedtimes fears are common among young (and not so young) children. Overcoming these bedtime fears can sometimes be a challenge, so here I address some common bedtime fears and give you some tips to help you get through this stage. The same principals are valid if your child is three, four, or seven years old.
Hear your child out, but…
First of all, hear them out. Listen and try and understand your child’s fears.
I’m big on letting children feel heard; I think it is important to acknowledge their feelings. This helps them know you are listening, but it also helps them learn to start regulating and coping with those emotions vs bottling them up or being held hostage by them.
If you can figure out where your child’s fears are coming from, it can also help you reassure them. But don’t be surprised if your child can’t tell you exactly what they’re scared of. Non-specific fears of “the dark”, the “bogyman” or “bad men” and “robbers” are common.
Bedtime fears can be another one of those normal developmental stages often based in imagination. Imagination starts in toddlerhood (typically around 2.5 -3 years) and it can be a powerful thing. Imagination at this age is also new for them, so there’s little distinguishing imagination from reality – it can all blur into one during the preschool years.
For older children the fear can stem from something upsetting they’ve experienced or that they’ve seen on T.V. – especially if it’s not age appropriate (note “the news” can strike fear into little hearts, but a child with a vivid imagination can also find fear in a number of not-so-obvious movies and TV programmes).
However, and here comes the crunch,
there is a fine line between you acknowledging the fears
and giving it too much attention – at any age.
Yes, you want to validate your child’s feelings, but you don’t want to buy into their fears and validate that monsters live in the wardrobe (or under the bed or down the hall).
If you buy into their fears and start hovering and changing things up too much, they can start thinking they’re justified in feeling scared. “Because now Mummy or Daddy are freaked out too and have started staying near me or are reacting funny, so maybe there really is something to be scared of…”
Watch the attention
To keep everything on an even keel, watch the attention you give the fears. If this whole bedtime fear thing is turning into an hour-long process of not settling to sleep at night, it’s already hard. So, you want to limit the attention you give it at bedtime.
Most of the time (say even 8 times out of 10), fear‑based tactics at bedtime are attention‑getting strategies. It’s a stall tactic, plain and simple. If she did it one time, and it got a reaction from you, it’s worth her doing it again. From then on it can become a nightly thing. Any attention is attention, and attention is a powerful motivator in children.
Now, before you get all up in arms, I’m not discounting the fact that maybe your child really is legitimately afraid. Remember that imagination? Even older children can get an idea stuck in their head and ruminate on it. But the more attention the fear gets, the more the fear can increase and before you know it the drama has escalated. Limiting attention is also about not giving the fear more fuel to grow.
What about Monster Spray?
Maybe you’ve heard about home-made monster spray? This is some water, and maybe a little bit of lavender oil in a spray bottle. Basically, you spray it around the room to get rid of monsters. Now, although I do OK it’s use if a child already has a long-standing fear of monsters, I’m typically not a fan of monster spray. Simply because you’re still focusing on the monster – you’re validating the idea that there are in fact monsters.
By giving your child a spray to remove monsters you’re agreeing with your child and effectively saying, “Oh, yes, there are monsters, but we can spray the room and they go away.” I’d rather you didn’t validate the existence of the monsters in the first place.
If you do want to use some lavender spray around the room to help your child relax, by all means, do so – but watch where your focus is going.
On days it gets tough (sickness, overtiredness, fear or anxiety) we sometimes put on our “night time perfume” to help us relax. In our house we use Plant and Share’s Baby Calm Balm on wrists and temples (even though my two are no longer babies). In the past, I’ve used a sweet dream spray as well. Same thing as monster spray to help calm and reassure, but a very different focus.
Reassure, but keep it real
Rather than the monster spray, I’d rather you have discussions, just casually, that monsters do not exist and there’s no reason to be afraid at bedtime (i.e. reassure them based on their actual fear if you know it). Reassure them that things are OK for sure. However, it’s best to keep these discussions for the daytime so your child doesn’t dwell on it at night. A short reassurance is often all they need at night.
Then focus on the positives by giving your child some examples of things you do to get ready for bed that make the process really enjoyable. Bedtime should be a pleasant time. Just discount this whole notion that there are monsters.
You also want to make sure that there’s nothing in their bedtime routine or anything that they’re watching throughout the day that could be contributing to the fear issue. It could be something you would never even imagine, so stay observant and open to what your child casually mentions.
Relax into a solid bedtime routine
Any time bedtime goes astray, get back to a good wind-down routine. A nice, relaxing bedtime routine will definitely help your child cope better at bedtime. I’ve written about them elsewhere so I won’t go into it much here. The routine doesn’t have to be elaborate. Maybe some stories before bed, but nothing scary or too stimulating. There are things you shouldn’t have in a bedtime routine. And remember no electronics and no television, at least an hour before bed.
A solid bedtime routine is good for your child and will really help him or her feel sleepy and relaxed, so that when bedtime arrives, they’re not all wired.
Set limits and reward bedtime achievements
Set limits or stick to your usual bedtime rules to encourage your child to stay in bed. The more they realise nothing bad happens when they’re in bed, the quicker they’ll realise everything is OK. Keep this positive by rewarding your child for following the rules and being less scared. A little motivation with the right reward can really help your child try a little harder to be fear-free.
But also remember, if there is game-playing going on, don’t give it any attention. If your child comes out and tells you he’s scared, take him back to bed and tuck him in, but also remind him of your rules and consider a consequence for not following through.
Adapt the room to encourage comfort
Fear of the dark and fear of monsters often go hand in hand. Just because you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there (darkness lets the imagination run riot)… so from the age of two years+ I recommend a small night light so your child can see what’s around their room. Just make sure it’s relatively dim and won’t stop them falling asleep. Orange, yellow and red colours are the best for night lights.
If your child has previously slept with the door shut, it could also be time to open it, so they can see the light through the doorway, and feel reassured by the sounds of the household around them.
You can also encourage that they take a transition toy to bed – this can be their favourite soft toy or a new security item, just to give them some added comfort at bedtime.
Then stay consistent in your approach
Yes, you need to stay consistent in your approach. Children have A LOT of willpower, and if you’ve reacted to the fear before, they will need some time to understand there’s nothing to be afraid of. So lots of calm, consistent reassurance, and routine from you.
Sometimes if the fear has been going on a while, it can take a few weeks for it to come right …. stick with it, bedtime fears are unlikely to go away in a matter of days if it’s been going on longer than that now.
Most of the time bedtime fears are a phase, and if you keep things relatively the same with a bit more reassurance it will pass. However, sometimes this phase can turn into a bad habit, and although the thing that caused the fear may have passed, the issue remains. And then you may need a little extra support and a bit more perseverance to get bedtimes back on track.
If your child continues to be fearful or anxious around bedtime, and you’d like a little one on one support and a gentle sleep plan to build up to better nights, please book in a free call to know more. Extreme anxiety and fear of bedtime started my family on our journey to better sleep, so I’ve also been through it myself. You can make it better!
Has your child been fearful at bedtime? What helped you get through it?