Fear of shadows, monsters and the dark are a common occurrence among toddlers and most often pass with a little time and patience. For some kiddos however, these fears can be very disruptive to their sleep routine resulting in an overtired toddler- something no one wants to deal with! While such fears are a normal part of development for many children, how you handle them could mean the difference between a short phase and a serious sleep issue. Here are some tips to help you avoid making the problem worse:
1) Honor their feelings without feeding into their fear. That is, tell them everyone feels scared sometimes and empathize with their feelings. And then be sure to let them know that monsters are not real, shadows are just made from light (helps to turn on the light and watch the shadows disappear), and that darkness is part of nature just like light. Remind them of the good things about the night- the stars, the fireflies, the moon, etc.
2) Enlist the help of a good book- if you check your local bookstore you will find countless titles addressing the issue- allow your child to help you pick one out. You can discuss the characters fear and how they handled it and then offer ways for your child to handle their fear. Come up with a plan together.
3) Encourage your child to develop their own coping skills by relying on a beloved stuffed animal for comfort, singing a favorite song to themselves, thinking of their favorite part of their day or something else positive.
4) Give your child some power over bedtime by asking them what would make them feel better during this phase (within reason). Do they want you to come back and give them a quick hug in 10 minutes? Or would it help to tell them you will peek in on them before you go to bed? Empowering them a bit will ease their sense of vulnerability that naturally worsens at night. Avoid lying with them until they are asleep however, as this typically causes more night wakings rather than solving the problem.
5) Arm them with a nightlight and/or a small flashlight to make them feel less afraid. Just be sure this doesn’t become a distraction.
6) If fears are causing sleeplessness be sure to put your little one to bed a bit early to compensate for the loss. An overtired child has a much harder time handling stress than a well- rested one. In addition, children who have developed a sleep debt tend to wake up more often at night inviting those fears to creep back in.
7) Be conscious of what your child watches on television, often fears start because of something they saw on television. Remember that images that might not seem scary to you but may be really frightening to your child.
8) Be careful to distinguish a true fear from a stalling mechanism- toddlers are smart creatures, smart enough to know that if they tell you they are scared you will come back in and give them attention. Of course, if your child has a true fear you should comfort them but if you sense it is becoming something different be sure to revert right back to your bedtime routine. Remember that young children are comforted by routine and structure.
9) Don’t underestimate the value of your calming bedtime routine. Much like when they were babies a soothing routine can help ease your toddler into sleep. It is so easy to start treating our toddlers like little adults and skimping on their bedtime routine. Don’t forget that they are still tiny little people and be sure not to rush through the process. Focus on being present physically AND emotionally for optimal results.
10) Seek help from your pediatrician if you feel your child’s anxiety is extreme or doesn’t get better with time.