The dark. Spiders. Monsters. Being alone. Fears that have interrupted children’s and parents’ sleep for millennia.
How common are nighttime fears?
4-6 year olds: 59%
7-9 year olds: 85%
10-12 year olds: 80%
Adolescents: 49% Muris, P., Merckelbach, H., Ollendick, T. H., King, N. J., & Bogie, N. (2001). Children’s nighttime fears: Parent-child ratings of frequency, content, origins, coping behaviors and severity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(1), 13–28.
Surprised? Me too. Even though nighttime fears affect most kids at some point, it’s helpful to know that these fears are a typical part of development. For the majority of kids, they’re pretty mild. Severe nighttime fears are less common, affecting 20-30% of children.
Severe or not, as a parent you understandably want to know how to help your child, particularly when fears are interrupting sleep.
When Do Nighttime Fears Start?
Infants and young toddlers may react with distress to their environment (loud noises, meeting a new person, being separated from mom and dad, sitting on Santa’s lap), but they do not yet have the ability to imagine. For this reason, children younger than ~2 years do not have fears, such as fear of the dark, the way an older child does. To a baby darkness is just darkness.
The ability to imagine something that is described but not seen is a skill that develops between 19-22 months.Ganea, P. A., Shutts, K., Spelke, E. S., & DeLoache, J. S. (2007). Thinking of Things Unseen. Psychological Science, 18(8), 734–739. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01968.x This sparks the start of all kinds of creative play as your child’s imagination takes off.
Imagination also opens up the world of fears, as young children try to make sense of the limitations of this new understanding. The vacuum cleaner sucked up a loose thread on the floor. Could it suck up a favorite blanket, too? Separating fantasy from reality is tricky–even for us as adults, sometimes!
Sometimes this inability to tell fact from fantasy is the sole root of a child’s nighttime fears.Zisenwine, T., Kaplan, M., Kushnir, J., & Sadeh, A. (2013). Nighttime Fears and Fantasy–Reality Differentiation in Preschool Children. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 44(1), 186–199. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-012-0318-x Other times, sadly, the fear is much more grounded in actual events. The good news is, that no matter the cause, children can learn how to handle their fears.
Minimize Your Risk
We all feel more emotional when we’re tired. One simple way to curb your child’s bedtime struggles is to stick to a schedule that allows your child to be well-rested. A consistent bedtime and consistent wake time is a key part of this. If your child’s fears are understandably making her* sleep deprivation worse, take heart that as you work through this, it will actually make things exponentially better.
* The feminine pronoun is used in this post for the sake of simplicity. Even though nighttime fears affect both boys and girls, it is more common among girls (73%) than boys (55%). Mindell, J. A., & Owens, J. A. (2015). A clinical guide to pediatric sleep : diagnosis and management of sleep problems (3rd ed.).
Also, limit your child’s screen time, particularly in the hour before bed. Even programming designed for children can include elements that are beyond your child’s comprehension. What may seem cute and whimsical to an adult can be terrifying for a little one. Note though, that the goal here is not to remove anything that may frighten your child, but simply to keep a healthy boundary.
Acknowledge the Fear
It’s okay to feel scared sometimes. We adults do too, don’t we? Let your little one know that she can tell you when something causes her to feel afraid. We don’t want to overplay the fear, but neither do we want to belittle it. Acknowledging the fear is seeking the middle ground. Let it be an opportunity to talk about it (preferably when it’s not bedtime). Look for the positive in her fears: there’s always something good to find.
A fear of dogs means that your child is recognizing how to be respectful of these animals. A fear of an imaginary creature means an opportunity to talk about how we have these amazing, creative minds that can think of things that aren’t real. Fear of something bad happening? We learn to be cautious, and we also learn that we are stronger than we realize. We got through something bad happening before, and it made us tougher.
Face the Fear
Millions of people are afraid to fly in a plane. Does not flying make them less afraid?
Often in a well-meaning attempt to alleviate our child’s fears, we try to minimize the source. For a child who’s afraid of monsters, we invent “monster spray” to get rid of them. For a child who’s afraid of the dark, we add lots of light. The problem with this is two-fold:
- It unintentionally reinforces that your child should feel scared.
- It robs your child of the opportunity to learn and to grow.
You cannot provide a place so safe that the fear goes away. Trying to do so just becomes frustrating for everyone. Your child has to find a way to overcome her fear: you can’t do this for her.
This is why we use strategies to gently introduce your child to facing her fear.
Empower Your Child
This is the exciting part for you as a parent: you’re going to see your child grow in a new way. It’s one of the best perks of parenting, to see your child conquer what had held her back before. Here are some ways to get there:
- Practice relaxing your muscles. Stress builds tension in your muscles. Your child can learn to tighten and release her muscles in order to relax them, allowing her whole body to relax. A script designed for kids can be found here.
- Think of something pleasant. When my own kids have had trouble falling asleep, I tell them to imagine that they have a house with 100 different rooms, and they get to decide what goes in them. One room might be full of Lego. Another might be a giant ball pit that they can jump in. An aquatic room gives them water slides and pool rafts galore.
- Tell yourself you can do this. Have your child come up with some statements to help her strengthen her “bravery muscles.” For example: I am strong. I can be calm when I am alone.
- Make it a game. This works particularly well for children with a fear of the dark, but with some creativity, you can make a game out of anything. Do a scavenger hunt in your child’s bedroom, with the lights off. Or play a game of hide-and-seek. Try standing in the hallway, and name an object in your child’s room: see how quickly she can find it in the dark and bring it back to you. It gives your child that gentle opportunity–in a fun setting–to see that she can tackle her fear.
- Give her someone to take care of–or to take care of her. A recent study tested a strategy called the Huggy Puppy Intervention. Doesn’t that sound awesome?
They recruited about a hundred 4-6 year old children with significant nighttime fears. Half were put into a group where they were given a toy puppy, and told that this puppy was going through a hard time. He needed someone to take care of him and help him feel better. Evidence shows that giving kids the opportunity to be a caregiver promotes confidence, as well as takes the child’s attention off of their own anxieties.
The rest of the kids were put into a group where the kids were given the toy puppy, but were told that he would be their protector and help them when they felt afraid.
After one month, both groups showed significant improvement. Kushnir, J., & Sadeh, A. (2012). Assessment of brief interventions for nighttime fears in preschool children. European Journal of Pediatrics, 171(1), 67–75. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00431-011-1488-4
One last note.
Be cautious about how you use your own presence to ease your child’s fears. Often parents resort to staying in the room with their child to help her fall asleep, and/or letting her climb into bed with them when she wakes in the middle of the night. It’s understandable. In some cases it may even be the best thing for the situation. But recognize when your reaction is actually getting in the way.
Take for example: every parent knows that if your child does something inappropriate that makes you laugh, you’d better not laugh out loud! Your laughter serves to reinforce the behavior. So too, if your child’s fear results in you unintentionally rewarding the behavior, that behavior might well continue just because the reward is worthwhile to your child.
Once you begin using some of the tools mentioned above, it can be helpful to establish family sleep rules for your home. Set boundaries that give your child the opportunity to see how brave and confident she can be. Believe that your child can accomplish great things.
I'm ready for a good night's sleep
|↑1||Muris, P., Merckelbach, H., Ollendick, T. H., King, N. J., & Bogie, N. (2001). Children’s nighttime fears: Parent-child ratings of frequency, content, origins, coping behaviors and severity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(1), 13–28.|
|↑2||Ganea, P. A., Shutts, K., Spelke, E. S., & DeLoache, J. S. (2007). Thinking of Things Unseen. Psychological Science, 18(8), 734–739. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01968.x|
|↑3||Zisenwine, T., Kaplan, M., Kushnir, J., & Sadeh, A. (2013). Nighttime Fears and Fantasy–Reality Differentiation in Preschool Children. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 44(1), 186–199. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-012-0318-x|
|↑4||Mindell, J. A., & Owens, J. A. (2015). A clinical guide to pediatric sleep : diagnosis and management of sleep problems (3rd ed.).|
|↑5||Kushnir, J., & Sadeh, A. (2012). Assessment of brief interventions for nighttime fears in preschool children. European Journal of Pediatrics, 171(1), 67–75. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00431-011-1488-4|