Dealing with a toddler or child that has anxieties about going to bed can be very challenging. As a mother and sleep consultant, I am always trying to develop a positive relationship between darkness/bedrooms/sleep and my girls. I have a few tips that can help you and your kiddo feel safe and secure in their rooms when new fears arise.
1. Have a conversation with your child about what upsets them at night. LISTEN and be supportive. Ask them an open-ended question so you are not inadvertently instilling new fears. Say something like “What’s bothering you at night?” Your child’s fears may seem absurd to you, but to them, they are very real. Let them know they are being heard, validate their feelings, then try to brainstorm some ways to deal with the issue. “You are frightened of the loud sound you hear outside your window? I bet that would be scary. What can we do to help you so you are not frightened? Should we play detective and find out what that sound is?”
2. Safe Spray -- Create imaginative solutions to contest the sources of your child's fears. For example, come up with a "safe spray". This can be a bottle lavender scented sheet spray or a simple bottle of water with a few drops of essential oils. Empower your child to use this each night before they go to bed to ensure that the room is safe and calm. I’ve heard other people use tactics such as “monster spray”; however, I feel like it’s a bad idea to encourage the belief that monsters exist.
3. Coping Strategies -- Practice some basic coping strategies during the day that you child can utilize during the night or before bed.
- Deep Breaths – “Blow stars up to the sky”. Place your index finger (Star) by your mouth. Inhale “like you are smelling a flower”, then blow the star up towards the sky. Encourage your child to blow 4-5 stars up at a time.
- Quietly sing a song
- Counter your fingers
- Imagine your favorite place and go on a mini adventure in your mind.
- Tighten / Squeeze your hands/toes/muscles, then relax.
4. Bedtime Routine -- Establish a predictable and calming bedtime routine. Think ZEN! Stick to the routine so your child always knows what to expect at night. Predictability brings comfort to little ones. Avoid screen time including movies, video games, tablet time, etc. Also, avoid sugary snacks and caffeine.
5. Check Method -- Tell your child you'll check on them every 15 minutes. Let them see you checking in, but do not engage in any kind of conversation. Use the same phrase every time you check on them……”You are safe, go to sleep.” Do not allow your child to bend any of your other bedtime rules that you have already developed. Have a rule that you are only going to check on them 2-3 times.
6. Night Light – You child will definitely get more quality rest if their room is dark; however, if your child expresses a major fear of the dark you can utilize a night light that is red/yellow hued as a last resort. Place it strategically so that it is not in your child’s direct line of vision.
7. Set Limits - Be supportive; however, make sure you have clear rules for bedtime. While many children have legitimate fears and anxieties in bed, they also often learn to use these as excuses to delay going to bed. This is likely to happen if your child learns she gets attention or is allowed out of bed if she complains about being afraid. Offer lots of reassurance up until bedtime but then set limits once you leave your kid's bedroom.
8. Sticker Chart -- Reinforce good bedtime behavior with a star chart or prize box. This helps prevent manipulation and encourages your child to face fears on their own. Perhaps they will get a prize/sticker if they stayed in their bed all night long.
9. Play in the Dark—Embrace the beauty of the dark by playing your child’s dark room with flashlights and glow in the dark items from the dollar store. (I do not recommend putting glow in the dark items in your kids’ room at night; however, as this can often be stimulating to the brain and disrupt natural sleepy cycles).
I hope you have found this list of tips to be helpful. Always feel free to schedule a free 15-minute Sleep Assessment / Discovery call if you need more assistance.