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While it’s wonderful that children’s imaginations can make the ordinary magical (that cardboard box is definitely a rocket ship!), imagination can sometimes make the ordinary scary for a small child – think about that dark closet, which, come bedtime, is suddenly full of monsters.
“Nighttime fears are very common between ages 3 and 6 and often appear as children develop the ability to imagine,” says Dr. Elizabeth Super, a pediatrician and children’s sleep specialist with the Pediatric Sleep Medicine program here at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.
Bedtime fears (as opposed to nightmares or bad dreams) arise during waking hours, as your child prepares to fall asleep. “It might feel like a stalling tactic – and sometimes it can be,” Dr. Super says. “Regardless, help your child address her fears by being really validating and reassuring, even as you stick to your sleep routine. Keeping on track will make her more confident and comfortable in the long run.”
Facing bedtime fears at your house? Try Dr. Super’s practical approaches to help put them to rest:
Scared of the dark? Turn on just enough light to allow your child to fall asleep. While a lot of light can inhibit a good night’s sleep, a bit of light will help your child move past her fears and fall asleep on her own – after all, there’s no good sleep if she can’t get to sleep. A special night light – one she gets to choose and then turn on herself – could help keep her fears at bay.
Monsters under the bed (or somewhere else)? Don’t dismiss his fears or reason them away, instead encourage your child to get in on the solution. For example, whip up a batch of monster repellent: Mix a little lavender oil (it has a calming aroma) with water and put the potion in a clean spray bottle. Have your little hero squirt it under the bed, in the closet, etc. and then check together to make sure his room is all clear. He’ll feel more in control – and his room will smell lovely.
Spooked by the TV? If your child is suddenly scared to get into bed, consider what she’s been watching. Did she see something that spooked her? Sometimes what’s frightening to a child isn’t immediately apparent to an adult (like those flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz…), so ask her. If you stop watching the scary show, or reading the spooky book, it might help her settle down. And if the movie made a lasting impression? Remind her that it’s pretend and together, imagine a different ending to the story. In your version, maybe those flying monkeys are busy delivering gumballs to all their monkey friends.
Worried about something? The world is a pretty big, confusing place and growing up is a lot of work. Setting aside a regular 5 to 10 minutes of “worry time” every day can be really helpful for older children, starting around age 5. At this time he is likely able to express his feelings more clearly, so talking to him about whatever is bothering him can help ease his fears. Just pick a time to chat that’s not immediately before bed.
Remember that this too will pass! Most children will grow past their bedtime fears with your support and reassurance.
Other posts in the Dr. Super sleep series:
What is your baby’s ‘sleep temperament?’
Six strategies to improve your baby’s sleep skills
Battle bad dreams, night terrors and things that go ‘bump’ in the dark
The real scoop on teething and sleep