It is very normal for kids 2-4yrs to have fears at nighttime…the dark, the shadows, the boogeyman, etc. And little kids can be very creative in their fears! My younger brother used to be afraid of trains coming in through his window! I remember being afraid that my raincoat hanging on a hook in my room turned into a little girl who would come closer to me, to get me when I closed my eyes. And my father confessed to being afraid of Captain Hook’s crocodile who swallowed the clock… he couldn’t stand any ticking sounds until he was about 10! Knowing that times haven’t changed much, kids who watch Disney movies might be afraid of a particular villain living in their closet or visiting them in their dreams. And lots of kids are afraid of alligators or monsters under the bed.
These things are totally normal. But when the fears start interrupting “normal” sleeping habits, it is time to take action. If you can intervene early, you often stave off fears getting worse. However, be prepared that many fears don’t go away overnight. They are largely outgrown with time. But there are things you can do to manage nighttime fears. Being practical and creative is the key.
1. Adjust lighting. Some kids do well with nightlights, others don’t because the light creates more shadows which are scary. Ask them. Some kids like having a flashlight by their bed, which makes them feel powerful in the dark. Or, get an energy efficient lamp and let them sleep with the light on. Don’t be afraid that they’ll need it forever; when they’ve clearly outgrown the problem, they’ll probably want it off themselves.
2. Add soothing music. Many stereos can be set on “repeat” and this is something to take advantage of if your child wakes up a lot during the night. Lullabyes, some classical music, or kids songs CDs can be a distraction from fear when a child opens their eyes in the dark… they don’t hear funny sounds outside, and they tune into the words instead of letting their imaginations run wild.
3. Add to the bedtime routine. For my brother who was afraid of trains coming in through his window (for no logical reason whatsoever), my mom invented the “Train Vanishing Spray” with a simple spray bottle and water. She used to go around and spritz his window every night saying, “Trains, go away!”, before bedtime–even letting my brother do it. A little bit of “magic” plus kid’s control can go a long way in making fears leave. Try the “Vanishing Spray” for alligators under the bed, villains in the closet, or other things which are irrational. If your child is trustworthy, you can even leave the bottle with them overnight to use if they wake up scared (most two year olds can’t handle this, but a 4 or 5 year old can). Other things which work at the bedtime routine include saying a special prayer or chant, reading a “vanishing” story each night (you can make one up yourself that incorporates the child’s actual fear and conquering hero), or having Dad play “ghostbuster” for a couple minutes (with a special tool, or superhero complete with cape). A prayer or chant works well because the child has something to say and try when they wake up by themselves in the middle of the night. If you believe in God, tell the child that God is more powerful than any other bad guy on earth, and to ask God for help if they wake up scared.
4. Add a stuffed animal or prop. Lots of kids start appreciating a stuffed animal friend at this age, if they are scared. Maybe even a couple. If you can play it up, that the animals will protect them and keep them safe, it can really work. Try a stuffed lion or bear (that is big and looks cute). Or you can employ a “magic” protection charm, like a flag over their bed, a canopy or bed tent, or a new monster-proof blanket on their bed. Even magic PJs or underwear can make them feel safe. These things have the added bonus of keeping little kids IN their bed because they think it’s the “home base” where they’re safe. You want to make their environment cozy and personal.
5. Add a person. If you have multiple siblings and are open to the idea, move someone else into your child’s room. Even a baby can make them feel safer because lots of kids are just afraid of being alone when they wake up. If the baby wakes the other child up a lot, it’s annoying but this can actually have a de-mystifying effect on nighttime… it seems like daytime, not so scary. If you do not have a sibling you can move in, consider reading in their room for 10 minutes while they try to fall asleep (don’t stay forever, though). Then you can come in and visit them, kiss them, before you go to bed yourself. We have found that our kids really enjoy these late night visits. Sometimes they don’t even wake up, but sometimes they do and so they know Mommy and Daddy are still watching out for them at nighttime. You can even put a picture of you and Daddy in their room, which is often very comforting. Just your “presence” wards off the monsters.
6. Evict all scary stuff out of their “diet.” I am so amazed at how little kids’ culture (even for 1-4yr olds!) is entrenched with fear elements–monsters, ghosts, witches. Like it is supposed to be fun and healthy. In reality, it is setting them up for bad dreams and fears because preschoolers may know (when they’re awake) that they are just pretend, but in the nighttime, that isn’t convincing. And I promise you that they can’t be afraid about things they’ve never seen. But how many kids can go through toddlerhood without being exposed to every kind of scary stuff? And little kids are so visual—anything that looks scary on the screen or page can bother them. This is attacking a sacred cow for some, but if your child is scared about something it is best to eliminate it even if it is inconvenient. This includes favorite movies, shows, books, and characters. Even the Halloween party, birthday clown, or visiting Santa if necessary. A lot of moms and dads feel their kids need cultural icons, but I can promise you that taking even seemingly innocuous things out of my kids’ diet went a LOOOONG way towards keeping the bedtime fears low. Now you can’t prevent a wild imagination (like trains through the window), but you can take out easy sources of fear: witches, dragons, ghosts, wizards, villains (even the beloved Nemo or Wall-E videos, who have scary elements), snakes, sharks, wolves, alligators, pirates, big fires, and “bad guys.” Tons of kids shows have heroes with “bad guys” but if this is making your child insecure (i.e. they are having bad dreams), it might be worth taking it out for awhile. Be protective. Guard your child’s sensitivity. They have lots of years in the future to enjoy media and make-believe. Even if you think there is only a small chance that something is scaring your child, take it out until you are sure they can handle it. There are plenty of friendly alternatives like Dora and Wonderpets to get addicted to =)
7. Rehearse victory during the day. Have your child practice victory over their fears during the day. This may include role-playing the superhero who can conquer ghosts and boogeymen. Or it can include doing a room inspection (for your realists) and examining things that look scary in the dark. Have them adjust things that seem creepy, like a hook on the wall or picture frame that casts a long shadow. If your child has more phobic fears (i.e. non-imaginative, like the vacuum, trains, toilet), you can work on these during the day too. But be aware that confronting their fears might cause worse bedtime experience. Lots of kids’ nighttime experiences are related to their daytime experiences, even if the connection seems fuzzy. But the more secure the child is during the day, the better that will translate over to nighttime. It’s best not to rush it– it depends on whether you feel like confrontation will help your child or just make it worse.
8. Examine other possible sources of stress. Again, children aren’t so linear that stress is contained… lifestyle stress can definitely be encouraging nighttime problems. “Stress” for a toddler or preschooler is relative, though, so be sure to account for things which are objectively stressful (Mommy is struggling, Daddy lost his job, parents are fighting, etc) and subjectively stressful (child is having trouble toilet-training, preschool is difficult, he or she was forced to eat vegetables tonight). By having an open mind and thinking about what a little child could be stressed about, you may be able to pinpoint strategies that will help reduce it… postpone the toilet, talk to the preschool teacher, skip the force feeding. Some little children are very precocious and pick up on their parents’ stresses, so don’t be beyond having “adult” talk in private or putting on a happy face for awhile. I am not saying to neglect your own health; I am saying that an astute 3-yr old can sense when things aren’t right. A lot of times this precociousness shows in your preschooler asking big questions: “What happens when we die?” “Are you going to go away, Mommy?” etc. And watch the TV shows you are watching around your kids… even Oprah or the news can be causing illogical stress for a little one. Sometimes they see or hear just one tiny bit which is disturbing. Tape it and watch it later.
Now these tips are just things for normal nighttime fears. If your child has a bigger problem like night terrors or sleepwalking, consult a professional. But the majority of things can be managed with a little patience and practicality! Don’t let accommodations rule your life (i.e. moving the child back into your bed), but do make accommodations and worry about weaning off props later. A year or two of sensitivity–especially during the ages of 3 and 4–will pay tremendous dividends.