As toddlers and preschool-aged children grow and develop emotionally, they begin to attach meaning to their experiences. Much of this development is positive, like feeling proud when finishing a peg puzzle or feeling happy to see a familiar friend at the playground. The development of fears is a natural part of this process and it can also be a good thing. For example, when a child learns that something can cause harm, a mild fear can lead to avoidance of danger. However, sometimes children develop fears that lead to bedtime anxiety and sleep disruption. From a parenting perspective, it can be very difficult to balance the desire to provide your child with support at night and maintenance of consolidated, independent sleep.
Most toddlers experience nighttime anxiety or fear at some point during their lives. There are many different ways that fears and anxiety can manifest themselves, including fears during the night, fears experienced during the day that cause anxiety at night, and fear of separation from parents.
Fears associated with the night
One recent study found that about a fifth of children develops a fear of the dark between age two and age three. Other night fears, such as fear of “monsters,” and unfamiliar noises also fall into this category. When children experience fears associated with going to sleep, they will often have trouble going to sleep at bedtime and may try to stall to keep a parent in the room or they may ask to have additional lights on at bedtime. Fear of the dark is obviously a big problem because nighttime is associated with darkness and the introduction of light into a child’s bedroom at night can itself cause biological sleep and circadian rhythm disruption. Learn more about whether a night light would be appropriate for your child.
Transfer of fears from day to night
Although it may not seem like a scary experience that occurred during the day could affect sleep, long-term memory consolidation happens during sleep so traumatic experiences that occurred during the day can be revisited and processed at night. For example, an experience (such as having a big dog unexpectedly bark at a child) can return in dream content during the night, often leading to a highly charged night waking following a stressful dream. These wakings are usually associated with a dramatic stress response, such as a child screaming and crying immediately upon waking. Few studies have quantified the effect of daytime fears on night anxiety, but one study found that children with fears experienced more night waking of longer duration than children without fears.
Anxiety from parental absence
It may seem strange, but most young children will go through a phase where they will be anxious that their parents are not around during the night. As a parent, this may seem like an irrational concern, because you know you would never leave during the night, but to your child, it is perfectly reasonable to call out just to make sure you are still there.
Separation-anxiety-related waking in babies and toddlers (see our 9-month and 18-month regression blogs) is typically associated with dramatic and stressful waking, but in older toddlers and pre-school-aged children, this type of waking can be quite different due to their cognitive abilities. For example, a three-year-old might call a parent into his room three times a night and ask to have his blanket rearranged. Although this may be frustrating to deal with as a parent, it’s important to understand that if your child is doing this that it may be a sign of a little bit of nighttime anxiety.
How do you manage night fears and anxiety?
The solution to guiding your child out of each of these types of nighttime anxieties depends on the cause of the problem. If your child is waking during the night and you suspect that fear or anxiety may be to blame, then it’s important to first determine the cause of that anxiety. Here are some basic do’s and don’ts for solving sleep problems associated with fears and anxiety:
Do provide comfort to your child as needed
If your child has a nightmare or wakes during the night following a scary experience during the day, provide your child with comfort and support. For example, if your child woke suddenly with high-stress screams following daytime exposure to a scary Halloween decoration, then go to her and provide her comfort and support to help her feel safe and secure again. Don’t worry about creating bad habits if you know your child is distressed. If your child continues to wake after a few nights and you think her fear has dissipated, then you may begin to change your response as described in the sections below.
Do give your child transition time
Transitions are hard in general for toddlers and preschoolers, but having you turn off the light and immediately walk out of the room can amplify the stress of the transition. If your child is expressing a fear of the dark or is having difficulty separating at bedtime, then it’s a good idea to end your routine with an activity that involves you sitting in the room with your child in the dark. This could be reading a book with a flashlight, telling a free-form story in the dark, or singing a song together in the dark while cuddling before you leave the room.
Do narrate what you are doing
It’s really helpful to narrate your actions even if your child is nonverbal. For example, if you are going to leave the roo