Does your toddler or older child get nervous at bedtime? Are they afraid of the dark? Or of monsters in the closet? Or are they simply afraid, but unable to explain why or of what?
This is common! Especially as kids’ imaginations start to run wild, or they see something scary in a book or movie. And if bedtime is already a struggle, this is an easy time for those fears to surface.
But the good news is, your child is still capable of sleep!
As an elementary teacher turned sleep consultant (and mom, of course!), these are all strategies I’ve used with my students, my girls, and/or the families that I work with.
Strategies to Help Your Child Through Bedtime Fears
Has your little one expressed a fear of the dark? If so, it’s NOT time to remove those blackout curtains…absolutely keep them up! We still don’t want sunlight impacting our kids’ sleep.
We do, however, want to help our kiddos through their fears, and using a night light might help do so.
Rather than buying a standard little white night light at the store, however, I recommend you use a night light with red or orange light. Red and orange lights do not interfere with sleep like a white or blue light do.
You might get something so simple as this, but I always suggest getting the Hatch Baby Rest! Not only can you set it to be on a red or orange light through the night, but you can also use it as a toddler clock!
If, however, your little one has not told you they are afraid of the dark, do not bring it up. We don’t want to inadvertently suggest that darkness can be scary, as there’s a good chance they will start being “afraid of the dark” once you mention it. And no light is ideal for sleep, so if you can continue without a night light, great!
We all know that mindset is huge when it comes to anything new, or hard, or scary. Which means helping our kids have a positive mindset around bedtime is important, because sleep is so good for us!
I’ve worked with families of kids who really benefit from using affirmations in their bedtime routine. These could be something like:
“I am strong. I am calm. I will sleep well tonight.”
Or you might find a quote, or a Bible verse that speaks about fears, and recite it with your child each night before bed. Something like:
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in You.” Psalm 56:3
Using consistent phrases, like affirmations or quotes, helps gives our kids a tool they can use, even when you’re not there. Teach them that if they find themselves afraid again, they can recite those affirmations, or say that verse.
Have your Child “Plan” their Dreams
Another way to help your child get excited about bedtime is to “plan” their dreams! Ask them what they think they might dream about, and help them brainstorm ideas.
Then the next morning, follow-up about those dreams!
We used to use the language, “What adventures will you have in your sleep?”, and our daughter loved making up silly adventures she would have, and then share about those dreams the next morning.
And if your child is regularly having nightmares and night terrors, read this post to learn what you might be able to do to prevent them, as well as how to respond to them!
The Kissing Hand
I love a good social story!
The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn, is a classic beginning of the year story for preschoolers and kindergarteners. The Mrs. Racoon is trying to help her little Chester prepare to go to school without her.
She kisses his hand and teaches Chester that if he is feeling sad or misses home, to remember that kiss and know that mama’s love is there with him.
In the end, the little raccoon gives his mama a kiss on the hand at drop-off, reminding her that even when he’s at school, they can still be “together.”
I know, cue ALL the sentimental feelings!
But what a sweet book and strategy you can use with your own kids, whether they are going to school, trying a new sport, or learning to sleep in their own bed at night.
Kiss their hand before you leave the room, so it’s like you’re “there.” (We do this with my 3.5 year old!)
You could also trace your hand, cut it out, and tape it to your child’s night stand, or on the wall by their bed. And remind them that if they’re nervous or miss you, touch the hand and remember that “you’re there.”
Teaching our kids how to use breathing to help calm themselves down is a really important skill, and talking about “cupcake breathing” is a fun way to learn to do so!
Tell your child to pretend they’re smelling a delicious cupcake and then pretend they’re blowing out a candle. Doing this a few times in a row will help your child calm down and bring them to a space where they can think or speak more clearly again.
Practicing cupcake breathing during the day and at night will help it become more and more automatic for your child, so if they find themselves getting worked up, whether you’re with them or not, they can use their cupcake breathing to calm down.
Offer a Lovey
If your child does net yet sleep with some sort of stuffed animal or comfort item, now is a great time to introduce one!
You can teach your little one to hug or cuddle their lovey when they’re nervous or afraid.
Some older kids do well sleeping with something like their parents’ shirt or a blanket that smells like mom or dad, and similar to The Kissing Hand, makes it feel (or smell!) like you’re “there”!
Why I Don’t Suggest “Monster Spray”
It’s a really cute idea – get a spray bottle, fill it with water and a drop of lavender, and then before bed, or in the middle of the night, spray your child’s room to scare away any monsters and help them get back to sleep.
While it seems fun and harmless, I do not suggest parents use anything like this if their child is expressing fears at night time. Spraying for monsters will not help your child stop fearing them, but will affirm that there could be scary things there that need to be sprayed away!
Monster spray is a band-aid solution that, in the moment, seems right. But what happens the next night, and the next night waking, and the next. More monster spray?
I am all about teaching our kids (and parents!) to have CONFIDENCE when it comes to bedtime. Having fears is common; it’s a natural part of growing up. It’s also common for those fears to surface around bedtime.
But they don’t have to keep our kids from being great sleepers!
From the families I’ve worked with, it seems like sometimes the real “fear” is in not knowing how to sleep. Kiddos are unsure of what the night will look like and are therefore afraid.
What will happen if I get out of bed? Will I get in trouble tonight? Will I get to sleep with them tonight? Will they bring me back to my room? Will they stay with me until I’m asleep? But what if they leave once I’m asleep? What will happen then? Will they close the door this time? When does the hallway light turn off?
I have found that when we establish routines and boundaries around bedtime, that consistency makes our kids feel safe. They know exactly what to expect each night.
And know that this is not on overnight “fix!” Like with everything in parenting, it takes patience, practice, and consistency, and of course, support!
And this doesn’t mean your child will never get nervous, but we’re giving them tools to start combating these fears so they can still get the rest they need.
When I work with families, we walk through a personalized sleep plan that will both address your child’s bedtime fears and also build consistency around bedtime and overnight, so they, too, can be confident and independent sleepers.
Interested in learning more? Book a FREE discovery call with me so I can share more about what it would look like to work together!