Lots of parents are concerned about their children’s bedtime fears and anxiety about being alone. The fears that your child experiences are a natural part of a child’s cognitive development. They happen as they get older and begin to realise that there are things out there that could harm them. 

Bedtime and nighttime fears affect over half of four- to six-year-olds, so they can certainly be considered normal!

Toddlers and younger children, too, can experience fears about bedtime, but these fears are less rooted in imaginary scenarios. They tend instead to be about things in their immediate environment like a sudden noise, or a parent getting up and leaving them. 

Age related fears

Age is important when it comes to the type of bedtime fear that a child has. A younger child is likely to worry about monsters and creatures of their imagination or seen in books and films. Older children’s fears are usually based on realistic things such as burglars, scary people, bad things happening to the family etc. 

Stress levels at home can make normal bedtime fears worse. This is because an anxious parent, or a tense atmosphere can cause them to feel emotional or worried, even before bedtime.

Sometimes fears, scary thoughts and worries can lead a child into a feeling of separation anxiety, or fear of being left alone. 

It can be tricky to work out if your child is truly scared or if their resistance to go to bed is due to other things such as delayed sleep onset. Or are they simply resisting bedtime because they are enjoying playing, or watching TV?

Children quickly come to realise that if they say they are scared, you are more likely to be sympathetic. Naturally, you should give them the benefit of the doubt, and if they say that they are scared, they need you to respond in the right way. That way may not necessarily mean staying beside them as they go to sleep, however.

Importantly, studies have shown that often children who feel scared at bedtime or in the night don’t tell their parents. What if your child is not crying, clinging on to you at bedtime or telling you that they are frightened? What are the hidden signs to look out for that they might be feeling scared about going to sleep?

Signs children are scared at bedtime

Saying they’re not tired.

Telling you that they feel poorly – and actually feeling poorly sometimes, with tummy ache/upset or headaches.

Delaying tactics such as needing a drink/feeling hungry/haven’t got the right pyjamas on.

Curtain calls – where they are coming to find you and check that you’re still there and/or hoping that you’ll come and stay with them as they go to sleep.

Them sleeping better when they occasionally share a room with someone else [on holiday for example.]

Of course, many of these signs can be typical of a tired child who is just pushing the limits. If your child is resisting bedtime but also tends to be oppositional with other things that are not sleep-related, then their night-time behaviour is probably just part of a bigger picture of how they are at the moment. Whether your child is genuinely scared at bedtime or simply pushing against the boundaries, your approach to dealing with it is going to be exactly the same. It’s best to be calm and kind with a gentle authority which will let them know that they are safe. And the good thing is that if you can handle bed-time fears and resistance in a positive way,  you will be better able to deal with tricky day-time behaviours too.

Let’s start with putting a child to bed, who is scared of being alone.

I’m going to give you some “dos and don’ts” and I’ll start with the don’ts!

Don’t

Look under your child’s bed/wardrobe/windowsill to check that there are no monsters there.

Use imaginary monster killer spray in the room before they go to sleep.

Tell them things that give truth to the existence of fictitious creatures, such as, “No bad fairies are coming tonight because we haven’t invited them!” Or “Mummy and daddy will keep the dragons away from you!”

Sit or lie beside them, sit inside or just outside their room as they go to sleep.

Let them have a screen device in their bed to distract them.

The first three of these strategies, whilst they might help in the short term, will only tell a child that their fears are real and that you believe them too. Otherwise why would you be checking under the bed and staying with them for protection? Screens in bed are a really bad idea, as they delay sleep onset and impair the quality of their sleep, by restricting the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin.

Do

Listen to their fears and show them that you care about how they feel.

Explain that monsters/bad fairies and so on are pretend and are only in books, films and other fictional situations.

Let them know, if they are old enough to understand, that night-time worrying is normal for children.

Stay calm and demonstrate to them that they are in your safe hands.

Tell them over and over that you are close by, can hear them, will keep them safe and nothing bad will happen.

Encourage them to repeat positive statements, “I am safe in my bed!” “I’m not scared!” “Monsters are not in real life!” Get them to say these statements out loud.

Let them have a night light on/their bedroom door semi-open/a touch light/torch or similar. Nightlights should be red, to encourage melatonin production.

Leave their bedroom door open a little bit, so they know you can hear them.

Encourage comfort/transitional objects such as a favourite teddy or blanket.

Allow room sharing with a sibling/s if that’s practical and works for you.

Consider allowing a [quiet] pet in the bedroom if they think it would help. [Not like my youngest daughter, whose hamster whizzing round on its wheel kept the whole family up in the night.]

Teach an older child some simple relaxation/distraction/ techniques such as the 3-3-3 rule.

Ask them to stay in their bed and reassure them that you will go in and check them regularly. Do go back reliably and frequently, rather than have them leave the room to find you. If they call out for you, call back and let them know you’ll be coming to them soon. When you do go back, always praise them for waiting.

Give rewards in the morning for sleeping alone, staying in their bed or being brave.

Books & media

Look at some of the wonderfully reassuring children’s books available which address and help with bedtime fears. A good example is Franklin in the Dark, by Paulette Bourgeois. 

Avoid scary stories if your child is sensitive to them. Another book recommendation is What a Day by Emma Ballantine & Mark Strepan. [I wrote the bedtime routine advice for this lovely book about mindfulness for children!]

As much as you can, supervise what they see on TV or hear on the radio. If they see or hear anything distressing, make sure that you take time to talk about it and put it into context, “The reason that that has made it onto TV is because things like that happen so rarely” or “Things like that don’t happen in our street.”

Talking it out

Encourage your child to talk about their fears if they can. Talking will make things feel better rather than worse. Listen and reassure them but don’t reinforce or give truth to their fear. Respond with something like, “That’s a scary thing that you’re thinking, and I’m not surprised that you don’t want to be on your own. Nothing bad like that can ever happen to you here, though, and it’s safe for you to go to sleep.”

Many people think that if they engage in a discussion about their child’s fears, they will encourage the fears to continue. This isn’t true, although over reassuring can sometimes give credence to fears of things that are very unlikely to happen. On the whole, don’t be scared to talk to your child about their worries. It’s fine to bring up the subject and encourage them to say out loud the things that are frightening/worrying them. Even if you can’t completely remove the fear, the very fact of saying it out loud will help. 

Managing their thoughts

Encourage your child to describe any mental images to you and then help them change them to less threatening ones. So if they imagine a man with a knife/a monster dripping with slime, tell them that with their imaginary magic wand or super power, they can change that picture. How about changing it to a kind man with a bunch of flowers/a beautiful horse dripping with raindrops? This technique also helps when they have a scary dream.

With an older child, if their thoughts and fears are grounded in reality [e.g intruders] you can still help them to replace the bad thought with a good thought. Then ask them to speak the thought aloud. You can encourage them to SAY, “That’s just the neighbour putting something in his bin!” Or “That’s only the stairs creaking – you’d creak if you’d been walked on all day!” If they say it a few times, it will become a new and less frightening thought.

Also, as a parent, it might help you to recognise that it is the thought in your child’s head that causes the feeling of fear. This feeling can include real physical symptoms such as tummy ache, nausea, headache and diarrhoea. If you can help them to change the thought, you can often ease their unwanted feeling.

Don’t put a worried child to bed too early!

On a very practical note, with all young children who are scared at bedtime, it is important not to put them to bed too early. If they go to bed with energy to spare, they will spend that time worrying. With most young children, a huge build up of sleep pressure, leading to extreme sleepiness will over ride fear and anxiety. Get them into the habit of getting into bed and falling to sleep quickly, even if at first it is at a time that you consider to be way too late for them. Then you can then gradually bring their bedtime forward. You do this when they start to fall asleep easily and within a few minutes of going to bed.