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Children can experience fear and anxiety after going to bed or when waking up in the middle of the night. It isn’t unusual, for example, for youngsters to be afraid of the dark in general — or to have a more specific fear, such as a monster lurking beneath the bed. What’s most important is how you respond to these fears and how you reassure your child.
Here are strategies to help address these nighttime fears and make falling asleep easier for your child.
First, the Cleveland Clinic suggests that you listen to your child describe bedtime fears, asking open-ended questions about how your child feels and what is so frightening. Something you find trivial can truly be frightening to your child.
Parents are urged not to take care of the monster under the bed because, despite your best intentions, this confirms to your child that it’s real and needs taken care of. Instead, reassure your child that he or she is safe and that his or her bed is a safe place to stay throughout the night.
The goal is to strengthen your child’s coping skills, so it’s better to spend extra time in your child’s bedroom instead of allowing him or her to come into yours. You can check in with your child at regular intervals to provide additional reassurance. You can also work on strengthening your child’s coping skills throughout the day, sharing ideas in the daytime about how to handle nighttime fears. Adding a night light can also help, along with a security blanket and favorite stuffed animal.
Science-based strategies to help with your child’s sleep problems include avoiding watching frightening shows on television, which can include news stories. This is especially important before bedtime. A 2006 study showed that children aged 5 to 6 who were exposed to adult television programs had more sleep issues at night.
Patience over your child’s bedtime fears is also important. Respond quickly when your child has a nightmare, sharing that everyone gets scared sometimes. Be sensitive about your child’s fears without allowing that to turn into overprotectiveness because if you are displaying fear and anxiety, this can actually increase your child’s fears.
Teach your child relaxation techniques, such as taking slow and deep breaths. One study showed that 40% of children who tried this relaxation technique appeared to be less distressed afterwards. You can also help to combat fear and anxiety and resulting sleep issues, when you teach your child to imagine happy thoughts, such as playing with a beloved pet.
If you’re experiencing difficulties getting your child to go to bed or fall asleep, try asking these eight questions to find out how your child feels about going to bed. If, for example, you ask about the worst part about going to bed, your child might respond by saying that it’s boring or that older siblings don’t have the same bedtime, which isn’t fair. That response does not indicate fear.
However, if your child talks about hearing noises, not knowing where parents are, or an inability to just shut his or her mind off, then these sleep problems can be related to nighttime fears.
Night terrors are different from nightmares, and the National Sleep Foundation shares some differences. For example, people can often vividly remember nightmares, while someone going through night terror may just remember the fear, not the specifics of the experience. Night terrors are most common in children between the ages of 4 to 8, while people of any age can experience nightmares.
If your child is regularly experiencing either of them or otherwise is struggling with sleep issues that you can’t seem to resolve on your own, talk to your child’s pediatrician for help. He or she can offer strategies to help your child learn to overcome those bedtime fears.