Are the phrases “There’s a monster under my bed! I’m too scared to sleep!” or “Don’t leave. Just one more story, please!” part of your nighttime battle to get your child to sleep? You might be thinking your child is just being difficult but the reality is that your child might be having sleep related anxiety.
You child might be afraid of the dark, of a monster under the bed, or bad guys coming into the room, just to name a few fears. The fear of something scary happening while a child sleeps can cause them to feel anxious about wanting to fall asleep.
Falling and staying asleep can be difficult when you feel scared or anxious. Most children will cope with the anxiety by delaying bedtime, waking up frequently, or climbing in bed with a parent in order to feel safe.
The temptation is to tell your child to just go sleep and that there is nothing to worry about. Chances are you already know that doesn’t work. At the Alaska Sleep Clinic, we understand that no one sleeps well when your child is struggling to sleep. Hopefully our tips on nighttime worry can help make sleep peaceful in your house
Sources of Anxiety
Children needs at least ten to twelve hours of sleep each night in order to function and develop normally. Lack of sleep can cause your child to feel cranky, anxious, or even depressed.
Lack of sleep can also cause physical problems like headaches and stomach aches. Concentration and learning can be affected by lack of sleep, which can result in problems in school. Making sure your child gets enough sleep is essential to their health and mental well-being.
So what causes a child to be anxious about falling or staying asleep? Your child’s age and life events can be the source of nighttime woes. The first thing to look to is what your developmental stage your child is at.
Toddlers and preschoolers haven’t yet learned the difference between reality and make-believe. A toddler or preschooler who see a show about a monster hiding in a closet might not understand that the monster was a fictional character and not real.
School-age children learn the difference between reality and make-believe, but their vivid imaginations can sometimes make it hard to turn of the fear that make-believe might turn into reality.
Exposure to movies, shows, books, and even news reports that touch on scary subjects can cause your child’s imagination to run wild. Scary thoughts can be overwhelming and downright frightening after the lights go out.
Nighttime fears can include fear of the dark, separation from parents, noises, and of bad guys causing harm. Most nighttime fears are a normal part of childhood development that last until a child is eight or nine years old.
School-age children are also learning that there are scary things in the world that can hurt them despite their parent’s best efforts to protect them. Thoughts of getting hurt or something bad happening to mom or dad can be difficult to control.
Your child might come to you in the middle of the night because of a scary noise. The scary noise might be proof of a worry about something that is happening in your child’s life. Your child hearing about news of a shooting, violence, or war can also cause nighttime anxiety.
Family stress, such as a death or illness, divorce or fighting, or even an upcoming move or the addition of a new sibling can cause your child to feel worried and anxious at nighttime.
You might not be able to eliminate the source of worry but you can help your child learn how to deal with worry and anxiety so that they can the sleep they need each night.
The best way to deal with nighttime fears is to help your child understand the difference between real danger — think stranger danger or smoking — and fears that aren’t real (monsters) or don’t have an present or personal threat — think mentions of wars in other countries on the news.
Help your child by teaching them that they can be the boss of their thoughts instead of letting worry rule their thoughts at nighttime.
Your first instinct when your child wakes up or refuses to go to sleep is to tell them they are being ridiculous and to just go back to sleep. Instead, you should empathize first. You need to let your child now that you are there to help them and that you understand they are scared or worried, even if their fears seem silly or unreasonable to you.
How do you let your child know you empathize with their fears? Tell them that you understand they are feeling scared or worried. Don’t rush to tell them there is nothing to be worried or scared about. Instead, help them work through the fear.
Help your child identify the real fear by letting them tell you what they are scared or worried about. If your child isn’t sure, don’t guess for them, as you might just be introducing new fears.
Once your child has told you their fears, help them fact check their worries. Help them sort out reality from make-believe.
Is your child worried about failing a test the next day? Help them fact check their worry by going over the steps they took to study. You can help them fact check any scenario by helping them discover what their worry is and what they can do or have down to overcome the problem.
If you belittle your child, they will get the idea that they things the worry about don’t matter. This can give your child the idea that their worries don’t matter and lead to even more worry.
For some kids, the major cause of nighttime worrying is not being able to fall asleep. The worry begins before bedtime and can last through sleep, causing your child to wake up in the middle of night.
A Calm Bedtime Routine
The cycle of worry can be vicious and is hard to break. Breaking the worry cycle can help your child learn to fall and stay asleep.
Setting up a calm and consistent bedtime in addition to learning how to overcome worry can help your child learn to sleep. Teaching your child some coping skills can help encourage restful sleep.
The following techniques below will help give you some ideas to help you and your child get some worry-free sleep:
- Monster spray: For toddlers and preschoolers who haven’t grasped the concept of make-believe versus reality, a spray bottle labeled as monster spray can help to banish the fear of scary creatures. Tell your child that the monster spray keeps the monsters away just like bug spray keeps the bugs away.
- Riddikulus: Take a note from the ridiculous spell in Harry Potter and teach your child to overcome their fears by creating their monster or worries into something silly. Have your child use their imagination to add roller skates or a tutu to their monster. Being scared is harder to do when you are giggling at how silly your monster looks.
- Practice being in the dark: The world looks different when the lights go out. With your help, have your child explore their bedroom, the hallway, and bathroom with a flashlight. With you as the tour guide, you can help your child discover where things are.
- Nightlight: Let your child help pick out a soft-glow night-light that can help them see their room if they wake up. Make sure that the night-light is not at eye level and not to bright. Brighter lights can interrupt sleeping.
- Worry time: Designate a specific worry time before bedtime so that your child can pour out their concerns to you. Choose a time in the evening where your child can go over their worries with you. Make sure you are taking the role of listener and try to let your child solve their own problem. Sometimes all it takes is some good listening and a bit of guidance to overcome a fear or a worry.
- Pillow talk: Take a few minutes before bed to reassure your child that you are there for them and then say your "good nights." Let them now you are there for them, but remind then that they can be in control of their worries.
Your child’s bedtime routine can make or break your child’s sleep patterns. Make sure you are practicing good sleep hygiene in addition to helping your child learn how to cope with worry.
Make sure you avoid all digital devices for at least sixty minutes before bed. The blue light from screen time can prevent your child’s body from releasing melatonin. Have your child avoid stimulants such as sugar, caffeine, and energy drinks in the evening.
A calm bedtime routine that involves bath time, an easy walk, reading stories (from a book and not a screen), and talking can help your child wind down before bedtime without being over stimulated and worried when they lay down to sleep.
Don’t worry if you don’t see immediate results with your child; it can take at least a couple of weeks to a month before you have an established sleep routine.
Sometimes sleep-related anxiety can be linked to sleep apnea, allergies, snoring, anxiety, depression, and medication side effects. Contact your pediatrician or the Alaska Sleep Clinic if you are concerned about your child’s sleep patterns or if their anxiety seems to be more than normal childhood worries.