Fam Features

10 Tips to Battling Toddler Fear and Other Bedtime Monsters


The following is a guest post from Dr. Kaylene Henderson. Please see below for more information about Dr. Henderson plus a giveaway!

I once heard that young children are hardwired to dream about frightening, child-eating creatures. Apparently it’s an evolutionary advantage to have had a few practice runs before being chased by a real saber-tooth tiger. These nightmares affect 50% of children and occur most often in the 3-6 year age group. Children’s brains have adapted to modern times though so instead of saber-tooth tigers it is now monsters which haunt our young children at night since these are the threatening figures that our little ones are exposed to in books and television shows.

The ways in which your child might express their night-time fears will depend on how often they’re frightened and on their age and language skills. Perhaps your child has become an expert in delaying tactics as bedtime approaches. Or does your little one start to panic as you tuck them in under the covers? Maybe you have a regular night-time visitor clambering up into your bed? My oldest child who was aged two at the time would wake screaming in the middle of every night. It was only after many months of this that we realized that her fear of sleep was a result of the monsters who visited her in her dreams, threatening to devour her.

If, as I was, you are battling your child’s bedtime fears, here are ten helpful tips that I have learnt from my dual roles as a Child Psychiatrist and as an experienced monster-battling mother:

  1. Be aware of what your toddler is exposed to. Children learn so much from books and television yet don’t have the experience to know what is real and what themes are fantasy. To make matters worse, children’s movies and stories are often filled with monsters, child-eating wolves and murderous (and horribly misrepresented) step-mothers.
  2. Don’t ever let anyone threaten your child with “the bogeyman” coming for them. It’s false and just plain mean.
  3. Each bedtime engage your toddler in the same, predictable, wind-down routine to help them manage any anticipatory anxiety they might have.
  4. If it helps them to feel braver, allow your child to have a dim night-light or a torch in their bedroom.
  5. It’s important to acknowledge that even though monsters are not real, your toddler’s fear is very real. And real fear needs to be met with real comfort, even in the middle of the night.
  6. Some parents seem to have success with “magical monster repellant spray” but this option never sat well with me. I preferred to be honest with my daughter, reassuring her that monsters did not exist and that her bedroom was a safe place. Similarly, repeated checking in her cupboards or under her bed or putting signs up prohibiting monster visitors would simply have confirmed for her that she was in real danger.
  7. Instead, teach your child about dreams by letting them know that dreams are just our ideas while we’re asleep. Ideas cannot hurt us nor can they make something magically happen. To prove this, try playing a game with your child in which you both take turns thinking about something with your eyes closed, then open your eyes to check whether just thinking about it made it real. It can go like this: (You, with eyes closed) “An ice-cream”, (open your eyes), “Shame – no ice-cream. Just thinking about it didn’t make it real.” After you’ve taken turns with this, you can try some less fun ones such as “Getting my finger caught in the door” or if your child doesn’t seem too anxious, “A monster on the couch”.
  8. By day, storytelling is a wonderful therapeutic tool. For children who are afraid of the dark or scared of monsters, the story should aim to shift the child’s attitude towards the monsters or the darkness through some event which isn’t compatible with fear. An example would be telling a story which ends with your child making friends with the feared monster.
  9. Art is also an amazing communication tool and another great medium to help children overcome strong feelings. Having your child draw their fears for you (even if it looks like toddler-scribble) can be really helpful as you try to understand what’s happening for them. Seeing the drawn version of their scary monster with you, their big brave grown-up, by their side can also help children feel braver.
  10. Lastly, see through the exhaustion for the opportunity this provides. If dreams are meant to prepare your child if ever they should meet a real-life ‘monster’, wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of the lessons they learnt is that you’ll be there for them joining them in battle.

Good luck and sweet dreams!

Dr. Kaylene Henderson is a Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist and Founder of Little Children Big Dreams which provides online help for children who are afraid of the dark or scared of monsters. Little Children Big Dreams offers personalized printable stories and parent guides to help children beat their fears of monsters or fears of the dark and sleep better at night. Parents are also invited to read Dr. Kaylene Henderson’s blog and Little Children Big Dreams Facebook page providing free access to parenting tips and Child Psychiatry information.

Dr. Henderson has been kind enough to offer 15 copies of her eBooks for a giveaway for our readers. We will be selecting 15 winners to receive a personalized copy of their choice of either “Fear of the Dark” or “Fear of Monsters.” Each story will be accompanied with a parent guide and child certificate and will be emailed to the winner, ready to print and use with their child. You can read more about each of these eBooks on the Little Children, Big Dreams website.

We will be accepting entries from today through 8:59 pm EST, December 28, 2012.

(*Please note that this giveaway is open to US and international entrants.)

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  1. Anne Greenhill says

    My Little Girl wakes up screaming and jumping up every night. Her speach is not advanced enough to tell me what is bothering her (apart from the fact that I’m not allowed to have a ponytail when I try to console her. LOL!).

    I thought 2 was too young to have such dreams! I’m mindful of not exposing her to monsters / aliens, etc., so my next conclusion was that it must be the dark.

    I like the advice in points #6 and #7!

  2. Jane says

    We used one of the Little Children Big Dreams stories for our 3 year old when she was waking up screaming at night (the fear of monsters one). Worked brilliantly, even though her ‘illustrations’ weren’t too good!
    I’d heard before that stories and art are great at helping kids overcome their fears, as this article mentions. I just hadn’t realised that it could be so good in this age group but it certainly worked well for our little girl.
    Thank you!

  3. cressida buckberry says

    Haven’t had to deal with fears yet but great article to prepare me for it!

  4. says

    I am a sleep coach and I love articles like this. I totally do # 8 with my 5 children. I tell them exciting stories at bedtime where usually they are walking to school or playing outside and they see some kind of monster seeming to threaten some small child they know and so they don their super powers to save the person from the monster. Super Nathan to the rescue! Involving flying and super strength they best the monster who explains that they were just looking for a friend to play with and as realization dons on my super hero child, they all go off to play together ending up eating some assortment of yummy food I describe in detail. They love it.

  5. Jessica says

    Our daughter just turned two and while putting her to sleep has ALWAYS been challenging, in the past month or so, she’s been telling us that she’s “scared of the monkey” evey night. We have no idea where this is coming from, but I would love to read this book for some insight.

  6. shel says

    Thank you for the helpful insight! My son (2.5) is very verbal and although he is not having nightmares, he does state very often that he’s “scared of the dark” or “scared of monsters/dragons/sea robots/sea dragons, etc…” at bedtime. He’s also a staller. His imagination is starting to fire on all cylinders and we’re trying to help distinguish real from imaginary from the get go! I love having a lot of tools int he bag and pulling out whatever is necessary dependent on each individual situation.

  7. Kelly says

    Thank you! My little guy is an expert staller so these tips are helpful.

  8. Karen says

    I haven’t had to deal with this yet (knock on wood), but I find the information in this article to be practical and worth trying. Because this is uncharted territory, just the thought of my daughter waking up screaming in fear is unnerving, but the practical tips above help it seem less so. I will def bookmark this “just in case”!

  9. says

    Hi everyone, thanks for the lovely comments.
    I’m really glad that you enjoyed the article and especially happy that my stories have been able to help your daughter with her bedtime fears Jane.
    Please feel free to have a look at the other articles I’ve written on the Little Children Big Dreams website – all topics have been suggested by readers and I’d love to hear your future topic suggestions.
    You’re also invited to join Little Children Big Dreams as a Facebook ‘liker’ for regular parenting tips and child psychiatry information (the link’s below – and don’t worry, with 3 young children I don’t have enough time to fill up your news feed!).
    I wish you and your little ones all the best, Dr Kaylene Henderson, Little Children Big Dreams

  10. Rendy says

    We recently moved from the U.S. to the UK. My 18 month does great up until its time to lay her in bed. We aren’t sure if she’s afraid or if its just some bad habits we’ve developed during the move. Is 19 months too young for a toddler to be afraid of the dark or unfamiliarity?

  11. says

    Hi Rendy,
    While a specific fear of the dark tends to develop later in children, babies and young toddlers can certainly be afraid of being away from their parents, especially when they’re placed in new and unfamiliar environments. Of course, if you’ve changed routines during your travels, moved your daughter into a bed/new cot or suddenly changed her sleeping ‘cues’ (eg a blanket, mobile, rocking, breast or bottle feed etc) then this might also have contributed. Hopefully with time, consistency and your patience, she’ll begin to feel more safe and secure (and sleepy!) in her new environment.
    All the best, Dr Kaylene Henderson, Little Children Big Dreams.

  12. Darcey says

    My daughter is 18 months and wakes up every night screaming. She is awake. She will not go back to sleep until I lay with her. We have 3 other school aged kids who need their sleep. If anyone reads this and has any ideas let me know. She points to the corner of the room with the night light every night. I would like some sleep of my own. Thanks!

  13. Suzanne says

    Love a good story to transform fears without lying to the kids. I haven’t used it with my daughter yet. She’s still young, but I do use it when I’m substituting in a kindergarten class.

  14. Sara Miñan says

    He doesn’t get very frightened yet, but if we think he’s afraid, we go into his room and soothe him. He also has started sleeping with a night light.

  15. Margo Davis says

    I go in and rub their back and remind them that it was just a dream, it wasn’t real and then tell them something good to dream about. If I need to I will get them talking about the fun they had that day to try to distract them.

  16. says

    I would love to win one of these books to help my clients with their older children!