Bedtime Fears: 8 Effective Ways to Help Your Toddler Feel Less Afraid

Bedtime Fears. A wonderful new sleep challenge to navigate! (Does it ever end? I think probably, no) Our almost 3.5 year old daughter has started to express fear at bedtime.  This is totally new for us.  Over the last few weeks she has been afraid of all the “spooky things” in her closet. The way her dresses hang, the boxes of diapers and clothes, even her beloved Thomas The Tank toys are making her feel afraid once the lights go out and her imagination comes to life. First it was just one thing in her room, now it seems like almost anything is spooking her out and making her feel nervous and afraid. She refers to these frightening things as “The Scaries.”

 Our daughter has never been afraid of much, especially around bedtime. For the most part, she generally loves going to bed (yes, I know we are blessed. She loves her sleep, like her Mama ;))  Working with preschoolers both in the classroom and in my sleep work, I know that being afraid at bedtime is one of the most common childhood fears that young children experience. Although it can be difficult to navigate, it is perfectly normal. It’s actually a sign that your little one is developing, growing and gaining a more advanced view of the world. So that’s the silver lining. Hope that helps.

If that silver lining didn’t really help, maybe these suggestions will.  Parents, don’t forget: the way you respond to your child’s fear will play an important role in her ability to overcome these night time worries and feel empowered and safe moving forward.

Ways to empower your child and overcome “The Scaries”:

  1. Accept all feelings and allow your child to communicate and express their fears.  Allowing your child to talk about whatever it is that is worrying them is key.  Some children become almost obsessed with their current fear, talking about it or relating to it all day. You can use this to talk things through with your child so that they become more comfortable with the thing that frightens them. For example, my daughter became scared of strange noises but particularly “beeping” sounds. The timer on the stove, microwave, alarm clock, even a squeaky chair scared the heck out of her.  The more she noticed these sounds in the day, learned about the sound and asked me questions, the more she understood that the sound wasn’t actually anything to worry about.  She learned that although beeps were initially scary, they  weren’t going to hurt anyone.  Make sure your child feels heard and understood.
  2. Don’t reinforce fears by over-reacting or projecting worry or serious concern. Try not to make a big deal when your child feels afraid.  Looking for monsters all over the house may actually make your child think that there is something to look for! Over-reacting to your child’s fear may make your child feel more uncertain and afraid. Children are always (and I mean always) watching their parents to see how they handle the world. If you can show compassion but also act like everything is A-OK, they will probably feel more relaxed.  Answer questions and offer reassurance using a loving, calm tone and although you’re not making it a big production, be sure to handle your child’s fear with sensitivity. Let them be heard, tell them that you understand that they feel afraid and that you will always keep them safe, but don’t get overly dramatic and express obvious worry or upset- they will pick up on this and feel even more nervous or uneasy.
  3. Discuss the difference between “real” and “make believe” or “pretend”.  If you haven’t had this conversation before, now might be a good time to begin to teach your child the difference. This concept “real” vs. “fantasy” may take some time to understand, but you can incorporate the discussion into many daily activities.  If you are reading Thomas the Tank Engine (I use that example because I am reading it errry night.) you might ask your child, “Can real trains talk?” Harold the Helicopter can talk in Thomas books. In real life, can helicopters talk? This helicopter is just pretend which means it is not real.”  Or perhaps you’re watching a show.. hmm say…oh I don’t know… Paw Patrol (big Paw Patrol fans over here, surprise surprise.)  While you watch with your child you can point out the differences between Skye, the fun-loving, smart but very competitive little pup with skills of a pilot, vs. a real dog. Explain that some things are make believe. Can real dogs fly through the sky while transporting team members from place to place? No. Skye is lovely, but she is just pretend. Real dogs are not able to do the things that pretend dogs in tv shows can do. Establish this difference using things your child knows and can relate to.
  4. Incorporate daytime games to teach your child that there is nothing to be afraid of.  Ever set up a tent and gone camping in the living room? How about  turning off all the lights in your child’s room and using flashlights to have some shadow fun!? Try to come up with daytime activities that you and your child can enjoy in the dark.  By engaging in positive, safe play with a caregiver, your child will begin to learn that the dark doesn’t have to be scary.  Other daytime activities may include making shadow puppets, using flashlights and music to have a dance party, playing a game of guessing what different shapes are in the dark, then turning the light on to reveal what the items are! See if you can have a little fun with the dark.
  5. Take a look at what your child is watching on TV, or even the books you are reading to them. Often a child’s fear is triggered by something we don’t expect or consider to be frightening.  If your child is already expressing fear around bedtime, pay very close attention to what they are looking at before bed (or anytime).  Many of the children’s movies (Pixar, Disney, etc) have frightening characters and scenes so that is obvious but I am always surprised when my daughter is watching something and I look over and she’s covering her face because she simply does not feel comfortable with the look of a particular character.  Even her favourite shows (Thomas & Paw Patrol) are making her imagination run wild and those two shows are about as tame as they get.  So, pay close attention to what they are watching and reading through the day and I recommend avoiding anything that appears to make them feel nervous or uncomfortable. It can be surprising what they find scary.  
  6. Positive, reassuring “bedtime talk.” Bedtime routine should never be rushed but this is especially important if your toddler feels afraid. This should be a special time to bond and connect but also leave your child feeling safe and secure once you leave the room. Slow down the routine. Once your munchkin is in bed you don’t have to run off and shut the door.  Have a big cuddle before leaving the room, rearrange your child’s team of stuffies (It doesn’t matter how many your child needs 5,10, 15, it’s all good.) Maybe you’ll have some pillow talk and reminisce about the wonderful day you had together, or the delicious breakfast you’re going to make when you all wake up the next day. You could play an audio book for your child to listen to until he falls asleep. All of these positive bedtime activities will provide tons of reassurance but also takes their mind off of their fears or worries. Try to plant a joyful memory or thought in your child’s mind right before leaving the room so that they feel comforted and safe.
  7. Be accommodating. Helping your little one overcome this fear may require some creativity on your end. Try to be accommodating. You may need to remove something from the room or add some new comfort items. What might make bedtime less “scary” for your child? Giving your child a flashlight to put next to his bed so that he has it in the night for reassurance.  Maybe she needs a new special  night light so that the shapes and shadows in her room are less of a mystery. If leaving the hall light on will make him feel more comfortable, leave the hall light on. If she would feel better with the door open, that’s no problem.  Remind your child that if she wakes, she can cuddle one of her sleeping buddies, give them a kiss, close her eyes and go back to sleep.  In our case, my daughter has been afraid of the closet so we initially closed the closest doors. Then we moved the “spooky” dresses out and put them in another room and finally we ended up turning her around so that she no longer faces the closet and instead faces the window.   Now we remind her that she can face the stars and the moon. That seems to be helping. Recently, some of her big train toys have been scaring her in the dark, so together spent some time in the day looking at them and talking to them and we reminded ourselves that they are not scary, it’s just Percy, James and Harold!  When she was still feeling scared by the whole gang, we decided to put them in a basket and move them to Mom and Dad’s room, just for good measure. Remember, don’t make it too dramatic which will confirm that these toys ARE actually scary.  I like to say something like “That’s ok. No problem. Tonight Thomas can sleep in Mommy’s room. How lucky for Mommy!” I’ve also been known to jump into the toddler bed with my daughter for an extra cuddle on the nights that she feels particularly scared at bedtime. Sometimes I’ll rub her back, or we might chat about the day or something we’re looking forward to or we might just lay there for 1 or 2 minutes.  Whatever it is, my presence for even a few minutes seems to help her relax and take her mind off whatever it is that is frightening her. 
  8. Never shame your child. Offer reassurance and support until they feel safe. No matter what the fear is, never shame your child or make them feel silly for feeling the way they feel.  I know, you’re exhausted and frustrated and you personally don’t think the box of diapers is anything to get scared over BUT it’s important to remember that although the fear may be illogical, the FEELING is very real. Address these fears with compassion, sensitivity and understanding and soon your child will learn that she is safe and sound no matter what strange shape the curtains make.  She’ll learn that everything is ok and nothing bad will happen to her in the night.

 BONUS Tip: If your child is waking in the night and coming to your bedside it is important to have a clear plan in place on how these wakings will be handled. This plan might include coming to Mom and Dad’s bed for a snuggle then being returned back to their bed with their flashlight and night light.  Or maybe you set up a little bed on the floor next to your bed. You might decide to go to them, offer them some water and a tuck in for reassurance. Or open their door and turn the hall light on. Whatever works for you and your family.  But get a plan in place so that everyone knows how to handle this in the middle of the night.

I hope this post has given you at least one new idea on how you can help your child overcome their bedtime worries. It’s not an easy one but they will learn that they are safe in the night as long as you are there to support and reassure them.