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Why does my child have so many nighttime fears?
Bedtime fears – the dark, monsters under the bed, and sleeping alone – are all common at this age. They tend to start around age 2 and may last until age 8 or 9.
These are the years when your child's powers of imagination are exploding, which means that now he can imagine new and scary things to be afraid of. And because he spends a good portion of his day immersed in fantasy play (in the company of dragons and dinosaurs and bad guys), it can be hard for him to shut off his imagination at bedtime and go to sleep.
Even familiar things that have never been scary before, like his darkened bedroom, may suddenly seem frightening against the backdrop of what he's been conjuring up all day. And your child is still learning to distinguish fantasy from reality, so the possibility of an invisible creature under his bed seems quite real to him.
In addition to having a more vivid imagination, preschoolers are also beginning to grasp that there are things in the world that can hurt them. Your job for the next ten years or so is to help your child understand the difference between a real danger (accepting a ride from a stranger) and something that just feels like one (the "witch" in the space between the wall and his bed).
What can I do to help my child get over his nighttime fears?
You may not be able to help him completely resolve his fears right now (because it's mostly a stage he'll have to grow out of), but there is a lot you can do to help him cope with his fears and get to sleep more easily.
In the hours before bed, prime your child with happy stories. (You've undoubtedly noticed how dark some fairy tales and fairy tales and animated movies can be.) Don't watch violent or suspenseful television shows or movies while he's still in the room. Avoid exposing your child to screens at all in the last hour or two before bedtime.
Establish a peaceful evening routine that includes, for example, a warm bath, a gentle story, a quiet song, and a few minutes of you sitting quietly by his bed while he settles. Ask your librarian for a list of storybooks about kids dealing with bedtime fears or see which bedtime books other our site members recommend. (One perennial favorite to add to your list is Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban.)
The lulling sameness of a bedtime ritual serves as a talisman of sorts, warding off evildoers and bad thoughts and easing the transition from wide-awake to sound asleep. A night-light may also make your child feel more secure. You can also give him a flashlight of his own to use for a little extra security.
Leaving the bedroom door ajar, playing an audio story or lullabies, and encouraging your child to sleep with a beloved toy or blanket may also help. If your child has a sibling or even a pet, letting them bunk together can make nighttime fears vanish as suddenly as they appeared.
If your child is afraid of being alone and is comforted only by contact with you, consider using a two-way baby monitor. Newer models let your child talk into the monitor and hear you talk back, reassuring him that you're still there even when you're out of sight.
Granted, this privilege may be easily abused, and its constant use can get tedious. But it could be a way to keep a nervous child in his bed while you get to be somewhere else, and the novelty of overuse should wear off within a few nights. After that, just keeping the monitor on your child's nightstand may be comfort enough.
And don't worry about having your child sleep with you for a while, just until his nighttime fears subside and he's off to another developmental challenge. As long as everyone's happy and rested, it's time well spent.
Should I give my child monster spray to help him ward off nighttime fears?
For some young children, a spray bottle filled with water might be an effective tool to ward off imaginary creatures lurking in the closet or under the bed — but it depends on the child.
Some kids will think it's funny. It may give them a feeling of power when you say, "If you think you see a monster, just spray it with this, and it will go away."
But for other kids, this strategy can backfire. After all, being armed with monster spray means you're expected to do battle with the thing under the bed, and that's a pretty scary thought for a little kid. It may be better for you to spray the room before you kiss him goodnight. But he may still think, "If grown-ups actually have this stuff to get rid of monsters, then there must really be monsters."
The same goes for making a big deal of searching your child's room for monsters before kissing him goodnight — it may reassure one child and terrify another. "If there are no creatures lurking in my room," your preschooler might wonder, "then why is my mom looking for them?"
So use your judgment. Only you can know whether tactics like these are likely to offer your child solace or elevate his anxiety. He may prefer calming rituals such as reading and soft music to help him feel secure at bedtime.
How can I tell whether my child's nighttime fears are abnormal?
If you've done everything you can to reassure your child and he's still intensely fearful, his fears may have crossed the line from a normal developmental issue to a phobia or anxiety problem. If so, you'll need to get some help for him.
Telltale signs of a phobia include crying and carrying on that repeatedly lasts more than a few minutes and blowing a normal fear way out of proportion. (For example, if your child says, "Turn on all the lights in the house so the robbers can't kill us" instead of "I'm scared of the dark.")
Extreme or persistent nighttime fears can result from a disturbing or traumatic event in the home, at preschool or daycare, or in the larger world. Even the youngest kids are aware of and vulnerable to the stress of a divorce or a death in the family, or a parent's job loss. Moving to a new house, changing caregivers or teachers, and experiencing an act of violence or a natural disaster can also trigger nighttime fears, as can physical or emotional abuse.
If your child will do anything to avoid facing a fear, or if he can't fall asleep because he's genuinely afraid (not because he wants to stay up late), he may have an underlying emotional issue that needs to be addressed. Ask your child's doctor to recommend a therapist in your area.