You know how when you have a really stressful day you somehow find the strength to push through it and get to bedtime only to find that the minute the lights go down you are flooded with anxious thoughts? Your mind races as you replay the events of the day in an attempt to process and make sense of it. Only this makes it worse, so you tell yourself that you have to find a way to settle down and get some much-needed sleep. So you do what adults do: Maybe you read a little, maybe you listen to your favorite song, maybe you watch TV, maybe you drink a little warm milk (more likely a glass of wine), or maybe you just write it down. You find a coping strategy that works for you so that you can calm that anxious brain and get yourself to sleep.
Here’s the thing: Toddlers and preschoolers are likely have the same experience on any given day, minus the coping strategies.
Toddlers and preschoolers spend a good portion of the day engaging in fantasy play. They create amazing stories about dinosaurs, cars, princesses, animals, and even monsters. They enjoy every second of it. You would never guess that fear might lurk beneath the surface. But it does. Common fears include: Darkness, separation from parents (even just to sleep), monsters, and ghosts.
It’s very difficult for young children to turn off their imaginations at night. Just as we struggle to process the stress of the day, young children are flooded with things they’ve learned, seen on TV, read in a book, or imagined throughout the day. Nighttime fears can start as young as age 2 and continue through age 8. The fears are very real. It’s not just “a phase”.
Somewhere between ages 3 and 4, most kids will start to grasp the fact that there are real dangers in the world that can have an affect on them (strangers, dogs, speeding cars, etc.). It’s a lot for a young mind to process.
Cognitively, toddlers and preschoolers struggle to separate real from imagined dangers. They know to stay out of the street, but they’re not quite sure if that dog walking by is friendly or not…and they are likely to confuse stories, TV shows, and even fairy tales with reality. Either way, they do not yet have the ability to cope with these fears independently.
Patience and great active listening skills will help, but below are a few tips to help you help your child ease into sleep:
1. Sleep schedule & bedtime routine: Toddlers and preschoolers generally need a total of 11-14 hours of sleep (including naps), depending on the child. Put your child to bed at the same time every night. Keep nap times consistent too. Any small changes to the routine can really throw them off balance. Just last night we kept the kids up much later than usual. While Liam went to bed with no problems tonight, I spent ten minutes convincing Riley that I will keep her safe from skunks (thanks, Curious George). Create a relaxing bedtime routine and stick to it. Young children crave routine and remain much less stressed when they know what to expect.
2. Create a comfortable environment: Try to put away toys and other clutter each night if you have a worrier on your hands. Even a small shadow can really increase the fear factor. Night lights (more than one; Riley has three), security objects (loveys work well for some, but Mommy’s sweatshirt is what keeps Riley safe), family pictures above the bed, leaving the door ajar, and continuous music on a low setting can all be useful and easing a worried mind. But don’t leave it up to me. Ask your child what will help her feel safe at night. Riley came up with the sweatshirt idea on her own, while Liam insists that a car in his crib makes a big difference.
3. Confront daytime stress: Children have their own stressors, but they also pick up on ours. Talk about their worries during the day, and process stressful events that arise during the day. Try not to just ignore the temper tantrum once it ends, help your child label his feelings and find the trigger. Discuss solutions and strategies for the future. They might not have the words to describe their feelings, but they can grasp simple strategies (ex: say “Mommy, help” instead of hitting). Other sources of stress include: Moving, changes in routine (including vacations), starting a new school, changes in caregivers, potty training, parents who travel frequently, change in teacher, natural disasters, parent losing a job, loss of a family member or pet, and divorce. Try to consider possible triggers when sleep issues arise.
4. Relaxation techniques: Sean is fond of pointing out that I have numerous tricks up my sleeve when it comes to helping the kids calm down. Check out the video, “Blowing up Balloons” under the “Strategies in Action” tab for a quick lesson in teaching relaxation breathing. Other options include having your child take a deep breath in (count to 4) and visualizing blowing bubbles on the exhale, and holding your child chest to chest and modeling deep breathing until she follows along and her breathing slows down. Relaxing Story Walk: Every night before bed I ask Riley where she wants to go on our relaxing walk. Tonight she chose the butterfly pavilion. I lead her through three to five minutes of guided imagery based on her destination, cueing her to take deep breaths along the way. It calms her down and refocuses her on relaxing thoughts. Happy thoughts: Replace a negative with a positive before you leave the room. Before I say, “I love you” I always ask Riley to name one happy thing we can do the next day. Usually it involves pancakes or the park, but it gets her focused on a positive.
5. Reassure safety: Underneath all of the specific fears and stressors is the real issue: Personal safety. Kids struggle to settle into sleep in a dark room all alone (after being supervised ALL day) because they start to wonder about their safety. Whatever the fear, reassure your child that you are monitoring her at all times, even during the night. Show your child how the baby monitor works by having her sit by the base while you go into the room and make noise. Not using a monitor? Have her lie on your bed while you shuffle around her room so that she can hear you and understand that you can also hear her. Children don’t really understand the concept of time until somewhere between ages 5-6. Make sure to reassure your child that you will only be separated for a short time by saying, “I can’t wait to see you in the morning”.
6. Checks & balances: Sometimes kids just need a little control over the situation. Being alone in a big bed in a dark room without any control can be very scary. Offer to check on your child regularly and ask her how many “checks” she wants. For the longest time Riley always chose seven checks. The reality is that she was usually asleep by the time I went to check on her once. Gradual withdraw: Some kids need a little extra parent time as they drift off. Consider laying on the floor for ten minutes (set a timer for you) a night for a couple of weeks, then gradually decrease the amount of time you spend there until you get down to zero.
7. Reward program: A simple reward chart (one sticker for falling asleep without a fuss and a prize after three stickers) or a prize box (filled with small treasures from the dollar store) can work wonders. And please remember the positive reinforcement in the form of excessive praise!
8. Night wanderers: As tempting as it is to let them in your bed so that you don’t have to get out, it just creates bad habits. Pick her up or hold her hand and quietly walk her back to her room. Do NOT engage in a conversation. A simple, “mommy loves you, mommy will keep you safe” will suffice. Remember to empathize with your child by saying that you understand her fears and will help her feel safe.
A few things to avoid:
Rushing: Rushing through the bedtime process = stress, and stress = scary. We are all tired, but if you have a nighttime worrier on your hands you have to take it slow.
Gimmicks: Ghost/monster sprays and keep out signs just reaffirm for your child that these things actually exist. They don’t. Tell your child that you understand that these things feel very real, but that they are just a part of their imaginations. Explain and point out shadows on the wall to make sense of them.
Marginalizing: A fear might seem silly to you, but it’s very real to your child. Avoid saying things like, “don’t be scared” (or worse) and remember to remain empathic.
Nighttime fears can make for a longer bedtime routine and won’t go away overnight. In fact, any change in routine (like a vacation) can necessitate starting the process over. Be patient and calm and help your child learn how to cope and relax into sleep.
What bedtime strategies help your child?