Children and Bedtime Fears and Nightmares

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What should I do if my child says he or she is too scared to go to sleep?

    • Listen and understand. Try to understand your child’s fears. Don't dismiss or make fun of them.
    • Reassurance. It is important to reassure your child if he is afraid. Communicate the idea of safety over and over again.

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  • Teach coping skills. Teach your child coping skills and discuss alternative ways to respond, such as "being brave" and thinking positive thoughts. You could talk about how you deal with something that you are afraid of. Also, provide examples of coping role models by reading stories about children who are afraid and conquer their fears.
  • Have fun in the dark. Make being in the dark fun. Play flashlight tag. Have a treasure hunt and search for things that glow in the dark.
  • Use your imagination and be creative. Use your imagination to fight imaginary fears, like monsters. Many families have found “monster spray” to be a wonderful way to help a child cope with bedtime fears. Some children are comforted by having a pet nearby for nighttime company (even a bedside fish tank may help). Whenever possible, have your child be actively involved in coming up with solutions to help him gain a sense of mastery and control.
  • Security object. Help your child become attached to a security object that he can keep in bed with him. This can help your child feel more relaxed at bedtime and throughout the night.
  • Nightlight. No matter what your child seems to be afraid of, a night-light can help. Nightlights are fine as long as it does not prevent your child from falling asleep. Another thing to try is leaving the bedroom door open so that your child doesn't feel isolated from the rest of the family.
  • Avoid scary television shows. Keep your child away from scary TV shows, videos or stories that may add to his fears.
  • Relaxation training. Teach your child relaxation strategies to help him relax at bedtime and fall asleep. For example, have your child imagine a relaxing scene, such as lying on the beach or watching a sunset. This will give him something else to think about while lying in bed and help distract him from his fearful thoughts. Also, it is physically impossible to be relaxed and scared at the same time.
  • Discuss your child’s fears during the day. Talk to your child about his fears during the day and how he can be less frightened at night. Additionally, build your child's self-confidence during the day. If he feels secure during the day, this can help him feel more secure at night, too.
  • Set limits. At the same time that you are reassuring your child, you do need to set limits. Setting limits is necessary to prevent your child’s “being scared” behavior from being reinforced. Also encourage appropriate behavior, such as remind your child “Remember, no crying and no calling at bedtime.”
  • Have him stay in his bed. Don't encourage your child to get out of bed. He should stay in bed and find out for himself that he really is safe so that he can learn to overcome his fears. It is much better for you to stay with him in his room than it is for him to join you. If your child is too frightened to stay in his room alone, it is okay to occasionally stay with him until he falls asleep. Don’t do this too frequently, or even two nights in a row, as he may come to depend on your presence. If your child gets up in the middle of the night and comes into your room, it is better to take him right back and gently tuck him into bed.
  • Check on him. If your child is anxious about you leaving, check on him frequently. It is better to check on him on a predictable schedule, every 5 or 10 minutes, so that your coming and reassuring him is not based on him crying or calling out for you.
  • Star system. Some children get reinforced for being scared at night by getting lots of attention for being afraid. If this is the case, switch the scenario. Tell him how proud you are of him for being brave. Set up a star system so he can earn stars for being brave and sleeping on his own. After earning a certain number of stars, he can turn them in for a treat, such as watching a favorite video, going to the park, or baking chocolate chip cookies.

What causes my child to feel scared of going to sleep?

Nighttime fears and nightmares are extremely common in children, especially during the preschool years, but they can definitely occur in older children and adolescents as well. They are part of normal development, as children’s imaginations develop and children begin to understand that there are things that exist that can hurt them. There are times that fears and nightmares are the result of a frightening experience, from being scared by a large dog to being in a car accident to watching the news, but other times they seem to come out of the blue. Family conflict and parental anxiety can also play a role. Anything that makes a child more emotionally aroused is going to make his fears worse and make him feel more anxious. Children also typically have different fears at different developmental stages. Young children are often afraid of monsters and other imaginary creatures, whereas older children are more likely to fear being hurt by more realistic dangers, such as burglars or a natural disaster.

Some children learn that saying they are afraid is an effective stalling tactic or a way to avoid bedtime. On the other hand, some children and adolescents with sleep issues really have an anxiety disorder; these are generally children who also worry a lot during the day or have things that they are anxious about or avoid.

How should I respond to my child's nightmare?

Your child is going to need reassurance after having a nightmare. This is especially the case with younger children. As your child gets older, though, you will want to start teaching him coping skills that he can use when he is anxious or scared. Unfortunately, you may not always be there when he has a bad dream, such as at a sleepover or at overnight camp. No matter how old your child, though, reassurance is going to go a long way to helping him feel safe and secure.

There are also things that you can do to help your child. Especially with younger children, a security object such as a favorite stuffed animal or a blanket can help a child feel relaxed and safe in bed. Other things that can help are leaving a low nightlight on in your child’s bedroom and teaching him relaxation techniques. Have your child imagine a relaxing scene, such as a being on the beach or watching a sunset, will help him relax after a scary dream. Children can also use their imagination to help them settle down and fall back to sleep. Have your child imagine a different ending to the nightmare, hang a dream catcher over your child’s bed which helps catch the “bad dreams,” or have your child draw pictures of his nightmare that he crumples up and throws away.

-- Jodi Mindell, PhD, is a leading authority on clinical sleep disorders in children and the Associate Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Dr. Mindell is a former member of the Board of Directors of the National Sleep Foundation.

Owens, J. A. & Mindell, J. A. (2005). Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep: The All-in-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens. New York: Marlowe and Co.

Reviewed by Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., June 2010