Bedtime Fears: Understanding the path to recovery

Even a child who has been a confident, independent sleeper can start to experience bedtime fears or anxiety, years later. It happened to my son when he was 10 years old. For an in depth description of our personal experience, please read the story of my son, Santiago.

Bedtime fear can be triggered by experiencing or witnessing a trauma, a scary story, having a nightmare, a big life change, a scary sound or image, or just a regular imagination. Once children develop “What if …” thinking (around age 4), their imaginations can run wild with potential threats. Any fear can generalize and progress quickly into a complicated situation.

We often start to allow bed-sharing, room sharing, or staying with our child until they fall asleep, thinking the fear will be short-lived. And often it is. But when a child shows strong resistance to returning to sleeping alone, after many days, we know it’s time to make a plan for recovery. In fact, staying with your child can perpetuate their idea that they are not safe by themself.

How to talk about fears

Validate your child’s fears rather than denying that something is scary.

I’m not a fan of giving children things like “monster spray” for example. It only gives credence to imaginary threats. I prefer to tell kids what’s real and what’s not real, but also acknowledging that it is scary to think about monsters. Consider the possibility that feeling afraid of monsters might just be an expression of a sense of vulnerability.

A fear can have many layers. Talk with your child to identify your child’s fear, its layers and its connections to situations like bedtime.

It’s not effective to try to convince them that their fears are irrational. They may be experiencing the fight or flight response which is a physiological, protective function of the body. You can’t just talk the body out of it.

Tell them it’s normal and okay to feel afraid, vulnerable or anxious sometimes and there are ways to manage and regulate our emotions. You will give them tools to learn how to do this, and it will take some practice.

The Goal

Rather than comforting them to sleep, we want to provide them with the opportunity to learn to calm themselves, in a consistent way, which builds trust and teaches them that they are, in fact, safe and sound.

Your child will experience some discomfort in the learning process, and that’s okay. It will be temporary and worth the trouble. They basically have to behave their way to success. Ask them to trust you and keep trying.

They will be given the tools to manage their fears and emotions. They will learn to feel confident by themselves, proud of their achievement, and will gain a great sense of self-reliance.

The Method

Timed Checks at bedtime is an effective and simple method. It reassures your child that you are there and they are fine, but doesn’t actually involve you in their process of falling asleep. For bedtime fear, I don’t increase the intervals of time within one night, but keep a set time. For example, you do a check every 5 minutes, until they fall asleep. This helps to build your child’s trust because of the dependable structure. They gain confidence, both by knowing that your boundaries are consistent and firm, and by proving to themself that they can do it.

A sleep consultant can help you develop a personalized plan that takes your unique situation into account and can coach you through all the steps and progress.

To Prepare

Have a family sleep meeting

  • Discuss their bedtime fears and your plan to help.
  • Describe the timed checks method and practice it together in the daytime.
  • Make a bedtime routine poster and give them the responsibility to follow the steps with support.
  • Make a sleep rules poster and practice the steps in the daytime.
  • Please see my Family Sleep Meeting blog post for poster examples.

Consider your child’s bedtime routine.

  • Make sure it’s calming and consistent.

Teach and practice tools for self-regulation.

  • Mindfulness practice – helps us to recognize our thoughts and their associated emotional states, which can eliminate the power of anxious thoughts.
  • Breathing exercises with action or imagery – create actual physiological changes that decrease anxiety and encourage relaxation to help a child fall asleep.
  • It’s particularly effective to teach age-appropriate exercises that combine a breathing exercise with a cognitive chore – keeping the mind busy so it can’t think of fears. For example, 5-finger breathing. There are many great relaxation exercises out there. It’s best to build a little repertoire by learning and practicing several favourites.

Parent Patience

This process requires an enormous amount of patience from parents.

  • You might worry that your child is manipulating you or being unduly stubborn.
  • You might be feeling anxious about your child losing sleep, or about the time you have to spend on the process.
  • You might feel angry about the slow pace of recovery and worry that your child isn’t trying hard enough.

This is all understandable. But the more calm and confident we can be, the better – because our kids feel our energy. Aim for a firm and fair approach.

Put your suspicions about your child potentially manipulating you “to bed”. Whether they have “real fears” or they just know that saying they’re afraid of the dark will get more attention, the reality is that they need to be supported through the process of returning to independent sleep.

Progress will not always be constant. Recovery may move very slowly, months even. If your child is a natural worrier and prone to anxiety, this may be more of a long term project. Best to set them on a path of understanding and provide them with some tools for life’s challenges.

Making sure that they feel confident and safe, by themselves, in their own bedroom, and can settle themselves to sleep, builds a foundation of strength that leads to more success.

There may be setbacks, but you will see progress when you have compassion, a plan, consistent boundaries and perseverance. Your child needs you to believe in their ability to succeed.

A note about rewards

In general, I don’t like reward systems when the reward seems unrelated to the desired behaviour. I prefer to work with natural consequences.

Some parents have good results with rewards, in certain instances, with certain kids. Sometimes it’s worth a try, especially when progress is slow and kids cannot easily feel the benefits of all the difficult work. It’s not always enough to say, “Trust me, this will eventually work.”

My son wasn’t motivated by rewards. Ultimately the reward for him was to feel better. When hard work results in a more joyful life, that lesson reaps rewards forever!

When to consult a doctor

Bedtime fears are very common, especially in ages 4 – 12. Usually the fears are manageable with this kind of approach. If your child’s fears seem unusually intense or obsessive, or if the fear is getting worse, leading to panic attacks, or is interfering with daily life, speak with your doctor for treatment.