The following is a guest post from Dr. Kaylene Henderson.
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:
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.
Don’t ever let anyone threaten your child with “the bogeyman” coming for them.
It’s false and just plain mean.
Each bedtime engage your toddler in the same, predictable, wind-down routine.
This will help them manage any anticipatory anxiety they might have.
If it helps them to feel braver, allow your child to have a dim night-light or a torch in their bedroom.
See The Baby Sleep Site’s article for more ideas about night lights, and some recommendations for the best ones for sleep.
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.
Some parents seem to have success with “magical monster repellent 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
22 thoughts on “10 Tips to Battling Toddler Fear and Other Bedtime Monsters”
My 21 month old is sleep trained but recently started waking up in the middle of the night screaming/crying for me. How do I continue his good sleep habits? I have let him cry for up to an hour and he will fall asleep but I was wondering if there were any other tips?
Hi @Rudi, thanks for writing to us. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been struggling recently with a wake up from your toddler. It is so hard to determine why this happens – I recently went through this with my son as well. Was it the 18 month regression, teething, or some other power struggle? I may never know! Here is a link to a free guide with tips on toddler sleep that may help: https://www.babysleepsite.com/toddler-sleep-tips
I hope it’s just a phase that passes quickly for you but if you need more help, let us know! You can reach us at [email protected]
Hang in there!
My 2.3 year old has gone to bed like a dream from day one (to good to be true) all of a sudden he is scared, at first it was his camera monitor in the room so I removed it but now he still won’t settle unless I stroke his back and falls asleep, i am worried I’m making a rod for my one back and will have to do this for months on end. Any advise on how to get around this?
@Holly – Thank you for stopping by our sleepy little village and for sharing. A 2-year old’s sleep can be quite difficult to manage for sure as they are going through quite a lot of development at this time, which triggers a sleep regression in many toddlers. Battling their new (but real to them!) fears can be a challenge many of us find hard to overcome without creating new habits. This article can give you more insight into your 2-year old’s sleep – https://www.babysleepsite.com/toddlers/5-things-about-2-year-old-toddler-sleep/ and help you through this phase. I hope this helps. Hang in there, Holly!
@Starr, Thank you for your comment and using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource!
I would love to win one of these books to help my clients with their older children!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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