It is normal for young children to have fears of the dark and going to bed at night. Most children experience nighttime fears at some point during childhood.
If a fear of the dark or going to bed is preventing your child from falling asleep or sleeping through the night, you may consider some of the following recommendations to help reduce your child's fear during the night and help him / her to get better sleep.
- It is important to understand your child's fears. Give your child a chance to tell you what makes him / her scared at bedtime. However, don't force your child to talk about the fear if he / she is not ready. The nature of children's fear is different throughout development. It is not uncommon for younger children to have difficulty telling the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. Never dismiss or make fun of a child's fear. A fear that may seem silly to an adult may seem very real to a child.
- Once you understand the nature of your child's fear, it is important not to support or build up these fears. For example, if he / she is afraid of monsters, don't get out the monster repellant spray or broom to sweep the monster away. These actions tend to make children think you believe in the imagined object as well. It may be helpful for your child to explore fears in the safety of the day. Be careful not to establish rituals to "clear the room of monsters." These attempts to comfort your child may inadvertently create a situation in which you are delaying bedtime and providing entertainment for your child as opposed to providing comfort.
- It may be helpful for your child to have a security object (e.g., special blanket, toy, stuffed animal) to keep during the night to help him / her to feel more relaxed a bedtime.
- A night-light may be helpful for providing security at night even if your child is not afraid of the dark. As long as the light does not interfere with your child's sleep onset, it is appropriate to have dim light at bedtime. Leaving your child's door open at bedtime can also create a sense of comfort and alleviate fear that is associated with separation from parents at bedtime.
- A pet for companionship (preferably an animal that does not sleep in the bed; a fish tank is a great option) can also provide security at night and reduce nighttime fear. Sometimes sharing a bedroom with an older sibling can help reduce bedtime fears. Be sure that children are not interfering with each other's sleep.
- Do not allow your child to be exposed to scary television shows, videos or storybooks that may increase fears at bedtime.
- It is important for your child to have daytime experiences that serve to build self-confidence. If he / she feels confident during the day, this will help with security at night as well. Depending on the age of your child and how well he / she is able to talk about fears, you may want to give your child the option of telling you about the fearful experiences and what might help him / her to feel less frightened at night.
- If your child has a difficult time separating from you after being tucked in for the night, or if she / he calls out in fear soon after bedtime, go back and ask what is wrong. Reassurance can be provided by making statements that communicate the safety of your child. For example, you might say, "You are OK. We are here to make sure that you are safe. We will make sure that nothing bothers you so that you can sleep comfortably in your own bed all night."
- Don't encourage your child to get out of the bed. The goal is to help your child overcome fears. If able to stay in bed and experience that everything is OK, he / she will learn to trust the bed is a safe place. If children are allowed to get up from bed and come into your room or into the room with other family members that are awake, they may learn that their room is not a safe place. It is better to join children in their room to provide comfort than to let them leave their bedroom.
- If your child is extremely frightened and you believe he / she cannot tolerate being in his / her room alone, it is OK to occasionally stay by the bed until he / she falls asleep. It is not recommended that this happen too often, or even two nights consecutively, as your child may come to depend on your presence. If your child is anxious about being left alone, you can say that you will check on him or her periodically. Begin by briefly checking and reassuring in 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20 minutes until your child is asleep. Be careful not to spend much time during the period of reassurance.
- If your child wakes up during the night and is afraid to go back to sleep, go to him/her and briefly reassure that he/she is safe and that you are close by. If your child gets out of bed during the night and comes to your bedroom, take him/her back to his/her bed and give reassurance of safety. It is important not to get your child up and out of bed; it is important for him/her to learn that his/her bed is a safe and comfortable place.
- If your child's problems at bedtime and during the night continue despite efforts at implementing the previous recommendations, your child may have become dependent on your attention. If you have reached this point, you may need to increase your efforts to be firm and consistent at bedtime while also providing comfort to your child and reassuring that it is safe to be in bed.
- If your child's bedtime fear and anxieties continue, are severe, or are also present during the day, you should consider having a formal psychological evaluation of your child to identify and treat anxiety.