3 1/2-year-old Noah has started to get up in the middle of the night after saying he had a bad dream. His parents have been able to get him back into his bed, but he won’t let them leave until he falls back to sleep. No one is getting enough sleep and everyone is very cranky. His parents want to be sensitive to his fears, but also help everyone get more sleep.
This is a very common phenomenon in households with a 3-year-old — it’s the age when children’s imaginations really start to take off. At the same time, they don’t have a very firm grasp on the difference between fantasy and reality. This translates into the development of fears: the monster from the book may appear in their bedroom, or the snake in the TV show about animals might climb through their window. Naturally, these fears are more likely to emerge at night when the lights are off and children are alone.
The best way children (or any of us) get over their fears is by living through them and experiencing that the fears can be unfounded. For example, when a child finally goes down the big slide he was terrified of and sees that he survived. Or when a child makes it through and thrives by the end of the first week of preschool after screaming for dear life not to be left in this strange, scary place.
At night time the same rules apply — your child needs to experience that the fears in his head are not real and that he is okay on his own. We want to empower our kids with the tools, courage and confidence to master these fears. Research shows that allowing children to learn to sleep on their own is growth-promoting (“positive stress”) and not harmful. (Here is a good piece on myths/facts about sleep training.)
The following strategies can be helpful in guiding you in deciding what approach you want to take.
Talk to your child about his “worry” versus his “thinking” brain: Explain that there are different parts of our brains: we all have a “worry” brain that makes us think things are scary, like monsters or ghosts. We also have a “thinking” part of our brain that helps us know whether something is real or not. Sometimes our worry brains trick us into thinking we need to be afraid of something when actually we’re totally safe, like when we are afraid that mommy might not come back from a work trip, even though she always comes back. Putting concepts into categories can be very helpful for young children. It helps them process and make sense of complex ideas.
Include time in your bedtime routine to go through the list of your child’s worries and help him use his thinking brain to problem-solve. If he doesn’t like it pitch black, put a nightlight in his room. If he’s afraid of monsters, remind him that they are in his worry brain and then go through his room together to show him there are no monsters. If he’s afraid of something coming in his window, show him how it shuts tight and can be locked. This gives children a sense of control which reduces fears.
Co-opt the love-object. “Loveys” — those special stuffed animals, blankets, etc., that young children become very attached to — can be powerful tools for soothing children and helping them cope in stressful situations. They can help reduce bedtime fears in several ways:
- Incorporate the lovey into your bedtime routine. The more your child associates her lovey with your nurturing family routines, the more powerful its ability to soothe her during separations and stress.
- Put your child in the role of being a helper and protector for her lovey. Suggest that Bear needs her help to see he’s safe and that getting sleep is so important to be sure his brain and body can grow big and strong. Have her help you explain to the lovey that the scary things are in his worry brain. This puts your child in the driver’s seat and in a mindset that she is the strong, capable one who can keep lovey safe.
Provide soothing tools for your child. Help your child identify ways he can soothe himself when he wakes up in the middle of the night, such as: singing himself or his lovey a favorite song, or hugging a memory foam pillow — something many children find very soothing. Empowering him with tools for calming himself helps him feel in control and able to take care of himself.
Set a plan for exactly what will happen when he wakes up. Every family comes up with a different plan based on their comfort level with allowing their child to work through their fears. The key elements should include the following:
- Let your child know that if he wakes up in the middle of the night from a bad dream that he can remind himself about his worry vs. thinking brain — that the fears aren’t real — and that he has all the soothing tools you have identified above to help him calm himself.
- If he calls out to you in the middle of the night, let him know that you will go in one time to reassure him that all is well and to remind him about his worry vs. thinking brain and about all his soothing tools.
- If your child comes to your room in the middle of the night, quietly and calmly escort him back to his own room.
- Be sure to use a positive tone of voice throughout the process. You want to project that all is well and that he is safe and secure in his room on his own.
- In the morning, be sure to emphasize that while he was afraid, he did a great job staying in his room all night and now he sees that he is safe.
Role play the plan. Once you have devised a plan that you feel confident you can implement, tell him exactly what the plan will be for middle-of-the-night-wakings. Then practice/role play the plan in advance. This can make a big difference in helping children adapt to the new expectations. Have him pretend he’s had a bad dream or has woken up feeling afraid in the middle of the night. Remind him to call out to you or to get up and come to your room and then play out the process — walking him back to his room, reminding him of his worry vs. thinking brain and of all his calming strategies.
While these are some of the most difficult moments for parents, it’s these experiences that enable you to have the greatest impact on positively shaping your children’s development. You are helping them feel confident that they can cope with the other challenges they will face as they grow.
Claire Lerner, LCSW-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. For over 30 years she has been partnering with parents to help them understand their young children's behavior and development. She also provides consultation and training to local preschools and pediatric residents. In addition, Claire is the author and creator of hundreds of resources for parents and professionals that translate the science of early childhood for into practical tools for promoting children's healthiest development.