Easing Toddlers Nighttime Fears

There’s a Monster Under My Bed!

Has the boogeyman been making the rounds at your house lately? Or maybe a ghost or even a scary alien? You’re not alone. Nighttime fears, no matter what form they take, are common among toddlers.

When Michelle Flora’s daughter Morgan was 18 months old, she suddenly started waking up crying at night and didn’t want to go to bed. For two weeks, Flora, a 35-year-old mother of two from Huntington, Ind., and her husband were dumbfounded as to why their once easy-sleeping daughter was now developing problems at night.

Then, one hot summer night as the couple put her to bed, they opened the nursery window. Morgan began to cry, “Shut window. Baby fall out!” Flora quickly put two and two together. “We were reading a book we had been given as a baby gift,” she says. “We read it every night before we went to bed. One of [the stories] in there was Rock a Bye Baby.” Apparently, little Morgan was afraid she, too, would fall just like the baby in the story. “When we put that book away, she finally slept through the night,” says Flora.

Nighttime fears often begin to show up in children around the age of 2 to 3 years. This may happen because children are learning to express themselves more clearly and can better explain their fears, says Dr. George Cohen, retired pediatrician and editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ book Guide to Your Child’s Sleep. “This is an age when kids begin to have some bad dreams or at least we can recognize that’s what they are,” he says.

Even though toddlers may communicate better, they still have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. So lots of things can become scary and take on a life of their own. According to Dr. Carl Hunt, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research in Bethesda, Md., this is a very normal part of child development. “These are stages and will pass without incident,” he says.

How to Make a Monster

“Monsters” can come from a variety of places – even news events that you discuss while in the presence of your child. Watching what you say in front of your children is crucial.

“There are lots of monsters,” says Alice Honig, professor emeritus of child development at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. “It’s amazing what kids get scared about.”

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, toddlers also have a whole new “monster” to be afraid of, according to Fern Reiss, author of Terrorism and Kids: Comforting Your Child. “The traditional ‘monster under the bed’ has, for many toddlers, turned into ‘terrorist under the bed,'” she says.

One way to prevent such a fear is by monitoring what your children watch on TV. According to Reiss, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that children were fearful directly in proportion to how much they saw about September 11 on TV. Keep in mind also that even movies or characters that seem harmless to you might scare your kids. “Even though they’re cartoons, and they don’t look like real people, sometimes kids get shaken up by this stuff,” says Dr. Cohen.

And storybooks aren’t always all innocent fun either. When you really think about it, some of those tales are pretty terrifying. Grandma getting eaten by a wolf; a baby falling from a tree; Hansel and Gretel about to get baked in an oven? Not quite fodder for sweet dreams. Pay attention to what you’re reading, and try to look at the stories from your child’s perspective.

You also want to avoid yelling or fighting in front of your child. This can frighten your toddler and show up at night as well. “They could have a bad dream just from the monster of family emotions,” says Honig.

Battling the Beast

Now you know what can cause the fears. But what do you do when your child just won’t go to sleep?

Most experts suggest leaving the door slightly open or turning on a nightlight to calm little ones’ anxieties. You might also try playing soothing music, especially to hide the sometimes creepy noises of a creaking house. Make sure that you have a regular bedtime routine, and be sure not to get your child worked up with rough play or other activities before bed.

If the child still insists that there’s a monster under the bed, stay calm and reassure him. Say things like, “It’s OK to fall asleep. We’ll be nearby,” and “Mommy and Daddy are much stronger than any monster, and we’ll protect you.”

“If parents are not afraid, the child doesn’t have to be afraid,” says Dr. Cohen.

Dr. Cohen also advises letting the child talk, sing or even draw a picture about it. Ask the child how he can make the monster friendlier. Maybe he’s a scary, green color, and the toddler can make him pink or even give him a silly name. “The child sees that he has some control over the situation,” says Dr. Cohen. For Flora, letting her daughters draw a picture helps her to better understand exactly what it is that they’re afraid of, especially when they’re having difficulty articulating it. Sometimes it turns out to be as simple as a shadow.

Experts also caution parents to keep the child from getting in their bed, particularly if they want him to develop a habit of sleeping in his own room. Sleeping with Mom and Dad can be a difficult habit to break. A better option, says Dr. Cohen, is to sit with the child in his own bed.

When to Get Reinforcements

Some toddlers may also begin experiencing what are called “night terrors” at this age, which can be very frightening for parents and may warrant a doctor’s visit. Tami Wiese, a 39-year-old mother from Champlin, Minn., woke up one night to a full tantrum by her then 15-month-old son, Tanner. When she went to his room, he was screaming and thrashing violently all while seemingly in a trance. “The more we tried to calm him down the worse it got,” she says. Her pediatrician told her that Tanner was having a “night terror.”

Night terrors can leave parents shuddering, but they are also common among toddlers. “It’s horrifying to watch your child go through that,” says Wiese.

According to Dr. Cohen, sleep terrors are caused by an arousal disorder and happen when the child is trying to get out of a deep sleep. The next morning they won’t remember the incident at all.

If you’ve given these methods a try with no luck or if night terrors or other sleep problems keep you up more than a few times a week for an extended period of time, it may be time to get help. Unusual behavior, such as cowering or exceptional fear, is also a signal that you need outside support.

Talk with your pediatrician first. “This is a very common concern that parents will bring to their pediatrician,” says Dr. Hunt. He or she can help to reassure you that the behavior is normal or refer you to a specialist if your child needs further help.

Sweet Dreams

Sending your child off to dreamland can be tricky. Here are a few parent-tested tips to ease the transition:

  • Offer your child a “lovie” or security object such as a small blanket or a T-shirt with your scent on it.
  • Sing lullabies each night, in the same reassuring order.
  • Give your child a warm bath before bedtime.
  • Massage your child with a soothing lotion. Take an infant massage class to learn techniques.
  • Reassure your children that you are only steps away, and they are safe.

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