Many parents find bedtime one of the most difficult parts of the day. Children often want to stay up “just a little longer” and this tugs at the heartstrings of their mums and dads. Even more complicated are times when children express anxiety at night and seem scared to go to sleep alone. It can be easy to fall into a habit of laying with your child until they fall asleep or to allow them to sleep in your bed. While short-term this may seem like a quick fix, in the longer-term it can affect spousal relationships, family routines and the child’s confidence. It can also implicitly send the message that they are not safe without you with them.
While children may go through short developmental phases of being scared to sleep alone at night, when these difficulties persist or become excessively frequent and distressing it may be time to intervene. The age of the child also comes into play when considering how much of a concern the anxiety has become. Ultimately, it is important for children to feel comfortable sleeping in their bed by themselves. After all, their own bed in their own home is really the safest place in the world. If a child doesn’t feel safe in their own bed it can be difficult for them to feel confident elsewhere.
If you have decided to help your child overcome their night-time fears, one of the most important things to assist them to sleep soundly alone in their own bed is to send the message that it is safe. It is really important that you encourage your child to confront their fears with some initial gentle reassurance.
Try not to be overly reassuring as this can come across as anxiety provoking. That is, it may seem to your child that you are trying too hard to encourage them, so it must be really difficult to do. Be mindful of your body language, tone of voice and the words you use. Project calm and remain poised when you communicate with your ‘little one’ and they will share in your confidence.
Using a reward system can be helpful to encourage them to challenge themselves. For example, a jar with shiny stones (purchased from a discount store) which you give your child for being brave. They can start earning them for staying in their bed all night by themselves or by doing other things they are not confident with. Remember, the bad thing about anxiety is that it can spread. However, the wonderful thing about confidence is that it will certainly spread.
Reassure your child initially by explaining “Mum and Dad would never ask you to do something that’s dangerous. We know our house is safe and so is your room. It’s important that you show yourself how brave you can be by sleeping in your bed all night. When you do this you’ll get a ‘brave stone’ to put in the jar. Once the jar is full you will get a special reward”. Try and find something that will really motivate your child to overcome the fear based on their interests (e.g. going to the movies, trampoline park, laser tag, etc.).
When night-time comes it is important to continue to project calm and confidence. This can be extremely difficult if your child is distressed. However, remember that they will draw on your approach to the situation and in time will adopt the same level of composure, by learning from watching you regulate your own emotions. Try and establish a soothing and consistent bedtime routine (e.g. have a bath, read a story in bed and then sleep time) and give them directions with certainty. For example, “It’s sleep time now. I love you and I’ll see you in the morning” then leave the room peacefully as if all is going to plan.
It’s up to you if you let your child come in to your room if they wake up in the middle of the night or keep coming out of their room. This is okay, however, it is extremely important that they then be calmly redirected back to their bed and that you are persistent with this. At that point ask your child “What did Mum and Dad say about overcoming you fears?”. It’s important that you assist your child to come up with the answers through prompting rather than giving them the responses. You need them to internalise their own self-talk that “Mum and Dad know my room is safe and there’s nothing to be afraid of. The noises outside are just normal night noises like birds, cats and cars going by”.
As difficult as it may be (and as much sleep as you may lose) you need to make sure that your child sleeps back in their own bed after they wake up. This may cost you sleep to begin with but it will save you a lot in the long run. These strategies will be helpful in assisting you to address your child’s night-time anxiety. However, some children and families may require professional support due to more extreme or persistent difficulties.
If you would like to seek advice or support in regards to your child’s anxiety please contact us today on 02 4929 2223. Our experienced and qualified Newcastle based Child Psychologists can assist.
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Child Psychologist Daniel Wendt is the Principal Psychologist of Oracle Psychology in Newcastle, NSW.