Understanding the Link Between Sleep Problems and Nighttime Fears

Often, parents reach out to me seeking guidance with their child’s sleep and anxiety problems. Sometimes, a child may need to have a parent nearby as they fall asleep, which can take anywhere from an hour to even longer. Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for children’s wellbeing. Lack of sleep can lead to increased attention difficulties, hyperactivity, aggressive behaviour, mood swings, and anxiety. Loss of sleep also affects cognitive function, as even limited sleep deprivation has been shown to result in a measurable deficit in cognitive performance.

Ever pondered why the boogeyman only shows up after sundown? Fear not, for this blog will shed light on all things sleep-related, including how to banish those fears and get some quality sleep. Say goodbye to restless nights and hello to sweet dreams.

What are Nighttime Fears?

I remember feeling scared at night as a child. 

As I lay in bed, my thoughts would become active, and I would imagine all kinds of threats that weren’t present. I was often too fearful to even poke my head out of the covers. Nighttime fears are common in children and a normal part of child development. Most of the time, they pass and there is no need to worry.

Examples include fear around safety (intruders, kidnappers), imaginary creatures (monsters and ghosts), darkness, sounds, and nightmares, as well as separation from others (fear of being alone, something happening to their parents, and not being able to sleep).

What’s Normal?

Over 70 percent of children suffer from nighttime fears. Between the ages of 2–9-year-olds, it’s normal to be afraid of the dark and scared when children are away from their parents. In Western culture, it is typical for children to sleep alone for long periods of time, leading to a lot of time apart from their parents. This could raise anxiety.

Also, your child’s imagination is growing. Studies show that children often have an overactive imagination when it comes to the dark and unknown. The brain is wired to be more alert and attentive in darker, unfamiliar surroundings. Children may use their imagination to make up a story to explain what lurks in the dark. This is why a pile of clothes in a child’s room at night may seem like a monster to them.

These types of nighttime fears seem irrational to adults, so it’s easy to get frustrated when all you want is for your child to sleep peacefully. To support your child through these fears, it’s important to remember that the monsters, nightmares, or scary thoughts are very real to them.

How Would I Know if My Child Has Nighttime Fears?

Signs of nighttime fears in children include refusal to go to bed, feeling anxious or agitated before bedtime. They can also present with physical symptoms, such as tummy or headaches. At bedtime, they may exhibit safety behaviours. Safety behaviours are when children develop routines that they need to do to feel safe and keep their anxiety at bay. Additional safety behaviours may include constantly seeking reassurance from you. It is important to remember that while these behaviours may provide temporary relief, they can also contribute to maintaining anxiety. Other signs to look out for may include difficulty sleeping alone, requiring a parent to stay in the room, delaying tasks, spending excessive time in the bath, and experiencing a meltdown.

Why Would My Child Suffer from Nighttime Fears?

Nighttime fears can arise from various sources, including:

1. Imagination and cognitive development: As children’s imaginations develop, they may create imaginary scenarios that become a source of fear during the night.

2. Separation anxiety and daytime anxiety: Fear of being separated from parents or caregivers can intensify during the night when children are alone in their rooms.Furthermore, children who experience anxieties during the day, such as worries about school, being away from their parents, or other issues, are more prone to being afraid of the dark and sleeping alone (Gregory and Eley 2005). By addressing your child’s daytime concerns, it is anticipated that their sleep will improve. ( Gwen Dewar, Parenting Science).

3. Media exposure: Television shows, movies, or even stories heard from friends can shape children’s perceptions and trigger fears.

4. Stress or trauma: Major life changes, traumatic experiences, or even minor stressors can heighten a child’s anxiety and lead to nighttime fears.

5. Sleep disruptions, such as nightmares or night terrors, can also play a role in nighttime fears. These disturbances can leave children feeling vulnerable and anxious, making it more difficult for them to feel safe and secure during the night. 

6. Lastly, your own reactions and behaviours can inadvertently contribute to your child’s nighttime fears. Not only our children, but also you can experience anxiety, especially when it comes to worrying about your child’s safety during sleep. It might be helpful to think back to your own childhood and how bedtime and separations were handled. Has your family gone through a loss or had an accident? Are you having difficulty moving on? Conversely, if a parent dismisses a child’s worries, it can worsen their anxiety and impede their ability to conquer it.

What are the Effects of Nighttime Fears on Children and Parents?

Many children experience fear at night, which can greatly affect both them and their caregivers. Recognising the consequences of these fears is essential for parents who want to find assistance and advice in aiding their children to overcome them. Seeking assistance is also crucial, as prolonged nighttime fears can lead to various long-term effects.

Emotional Effects on Children 

Nighttime fears can lead to various emotional effects in children. They may experience heightened anxiety, fear, and feelings of helplessness, which can disrupt their sleep patterns and well-being. Children with nighttime fears may also develop low self-esteem, as they may feel embarrassed or inadequate for being scared. Furthermore, these fears can impact their ability to self-regulate and manage stress, affecting their emotional resilience and ability to learn.

Psychological Effects on Children

The psychological effects of nighttime fears can manifest in several ways. Children may develop irrational beliefs or phobias related to the source of their fear, such as monsters or dark spaces. These fears can also lead to nightmares, night terrors, and other sleep disturbances, contributing to feelings of exhaustion and impaired cognitive functioning during the day.

Not Sleeping Places your Child at Risk of Mental Health Issues.

Professor Alice Gregory and Dr Faith Orchard Sleep Experts from ( Acamh.org/topic/sleep/) note problems sleeping is a common symptom of many mental health difficulties in young people, such as anxiety, depression, and behavioural difficulties (DSM-5, American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In some instances, sleep has been found to be amongst the most common symptoms reported in young people with mental health problems (e.g. Goodyer et al., 2017). Poor sleep can exacerbate other symptoms of mental health problems such as difficulties concentrating, thinking, planning and making judgements, or feeling exhausted and hopeless. These difficulties make it hard to take part in normal activities at schools, with friends and at home, and young people may find themselves feeling able to do less and less when they are having problems sleeping.

Effects on You as a Parent

Nighttime fears also affect parents, often causing stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation.  Sometimes parents may feel helplessness and frustration when their child wakes up in fear during the night, particularly if the fears persist over an extended period. This emotional burden can lead to parental fatigue and strained relationships, as the entire family’s sleep patterns are disrupted. This is why it is important to practise self-compassion.

Nighttime fears

How do you accommodate your child if they suffer from nighttimes fears

Parental accommodations are the things parents do to help their child feel more comfortable and cope with nighttime fears.You know, it’s really heartwarming to see how parents will go to great lengths to prevent their child’s distress.

However, sometimes these well-intentioned accommodations can unintentionally make things a bit trickier in the long run. Let me give you some examples I’ve seen in my practice (Remember, if you are happy with it, that’s fine. It is only a problem if you feel it is):

Bedtime rituals: Ah, the sacred bedtime routine. Many kids have their own special rituals, like arranging their stuffed animals just so or reading that one specific book. These rituals can be super comforting! But sometimes, they can become a bit too rigid, causing stress if they’re not followed to a T. So, it’s all about finding that sweet spot between a comforting routine and flexibility.

Co-sleeping: Picture this: your little one wakes up scared in the middle of the night, and you invite them into your bed for some cozy snuggles. It’s an immediate comfort fix, right? But here’s the catch – it can make it a tad harder for them to learn to sleep independently in their own bed. So, it might be worth gradually encouraging them to snooze in their own space to foster their independence.

Avoiding disruptions: We all know the importance of a consistent sleep routine, but life happens, right? Sometimes, parents avoid going out or taking trips that might mess with their child’s sleep routine. And while routine is important, it’s also good for kids to learn to adapt to different situations. So, a little flexibility here and there can actually be a good thing.

Staying in the room: Ah, the classic “I’ll stay until you fall asleep” move. It’s like a parental security blanket, providing that extra reassurance. But here’s the thing, it can create a bit of a dependency on your presence. And let’s be real, you might worry about the meltdown that could ensue if you try to sneak out. So, finding a balance between staying for a bit and gradually reducing your presence can help them develop their own sleep independence.

Answering questions: Kids are curious little beings, and they love to ask questions about everything under the moon, especially when it comes to bedtime and fears. And as parents, we patiently answer them all. But if those questions become excessive or repetitive, it’s important to find that sweet spot between reassurance and encouraging their independence. After all, we want them to develop their problem-solving skills and learn to soothe themselves.

It’s totally natural for parents to want to prevent their child’s distress. But finding that balance between providing comfort and fostering independence is key. By gradually reducing accommodations and encouraging their self-reliance, parents can help their little ones develop coping skills, resilience, and the confidence to conquer those nighttime fears.

Tips to Help your Child with Nighttime Fears

  • During the 30 to 60 minutes leading up to bedtime, it is best to avoid exposing your child to things like scary movies, TV shows, bedtime stories with frightening themes, scary music, or videos that could upset them. Doing puzzles and colouring helps children feel calmer.
  • Create a regular and calming nighttime ritual for your child to unwind before bed. This will provide sleep signals for the body to recognise when it’s time to sleep, taking a bath, a massage, or reading a story.
  • Make sure that your child’s bedroom is peaceful and well-organised, and is used only for sleeping rather than as a place for activity. Assess whether it is also too hot, cold, or is there too much noise nearby.
  • You can also make a self-soothe box to help them calm. This is especially helpful for older children.
  • Keep the bedtime routine for no longer than 35 minutes. If your child’s bedtime is extended, they will have more opportunity to feel anxious. It may be necessary to change their bedtime, by allowing them to go to bed later in the beginning and then gradually returning to their regular bedtime. Staying awake and worrying can often hinder the ability to fall asleep.
  • Ensure that your child’s sleep environment is comfortable and secure. Use a nightlight or leave the bedroom door slightly open to alleviate any fears of the dark. Consider using a favourite stuffed animal or blanket for added comfort. They can look after ” Teddy” and help Teddy to go to sleep.
Sleep Solutions
  • Create a safe space for your child to express their fears and concerns. Encourage them to talk about what is bothering them and actively listen without judgement. Validate their feelings and reassure them that it’s normal to have fears. Experiment with this during the day, when they are not triggered by anxieties. Refrain from asking why, they will not know; a few recommendations include:

I’ve noticed it seems hard for you to get off to sleep or sleep on your own”.

“I wondered if you might feel worried. Many children at your age feel worried about these sorts of things, and you are not the only one”.

“Many children feel worried about being away from… at night; it’s a long time to be away from me, do you feel like that sometimes?”

“I wondered if you were worried someone was going to come in.” “Is that right? Tell me some more?”

“We are safe, and lots of children like you worry about someone coming into the house. This is called a nighttime fear, because your brain is developing a big imagination. I know you think it is real, but it is your mind playing tricks.”

  • Provide verbal reassurance and physical comfort when your child is feeling scared. Stay with them until they feel calm and secure. Remind them that ” we are safe here” and are there to support them.
  • Teach your child basic relaxation methods, such as deep breathing and visualisation, to help them soothe their mind and body during times of anxiety or fear. However, please note that these techniques may not be effective on their own. I created a meditation especially for children who find it difficult to let go at night.
  • Address specific fears directly. Use age-appropriate explanations to help them understand that these fears are not real or unlikely to happen. Furthermore, it can be beneficial to use checking/monitoring. For instance, I will check on you in two / five minutes to make sure you are doing well, and then gradually increase the duration between check-ins.
  • I suggest using a bedtime pass alongside this technique. This is particularly beneficial for younger children, specifically those in primary school. The idea is to create a small pass together, for the child to place under their pillow. The child will then receive a small reward the next morning if they only use the pass once. This pass gives them the opportunity to leave their bedroom and complete the one thing they really want to do before going to sleep.
  • Encourage your child to develop coping strategies to manage their fears independently. Teach them positive self-talk so that they can feel empowered and in control.
  • Collaborate to create a step-by-step plan. Collaborative problem-solving can inspire children to be more motivated and provide a sense of security. Utilising a visual tool, like a ladder below, to plot out the necessary actions can aid in achieving the desired outcome through gradual exposure. It is good to have short, medium, and long-term goals. Start small and work slowly.
  • Remember to praise your child generously for sleeping. You could reward them with additional Special Playtime, the opportunity to choose dinner, or a family game to enjoy together.
  • Connected Special Playtime of 20 to 30 minutes is especially helpful for children. Connected special play time involves active participation from parents or caregivers (that means not looking at your phone or watching TV at the same time). The child experiences a sense of security and encouragement when connecting and engaging with their carer. Additionally, it also offers moments of positivity during times of exhaustion and irritability due to lack of sleep.
  • Separation can be challenging for children with nighttime fears, especially when it comes to bedtime. Connected special play time can help ease this transition by providing a positive and enjoyable experience which models positive separation. Playing and bonding with a carer can help children feel safer and more reassured, ultimately easing the challenges of separation. This helps children learn to cope with separation and transition periods, which leads to less fraught nighttimes.
  • After creating a plan, make sure to remain consistent!
Nightime

Sleep disturbances are often short-lasting and do not require intervention. If sleep problems persist and interfere with daily tasks, such as trouble focusing in school or a loss of interest in usual hobbies, seek help and support.

Remember to be patient and understanding as you help your child navigate their nighttime fears. Every child is unique, and it may take time for them to feel more comfortable and secure at night. If you need further assistance or guidance, contact me for a sleep consultation or consultation regarding your child’s anxiety. Together, we can work towards creating a more peaceful and reassuring sleep environment for everyone to have a good night’s sleep.

Can you help me?

I have written a healing story for children with nighttime fears. Would you be willing to read this with your child. It would require answering some short questions. If you are interested, please do contact me.

Other Related Posts:

Emotional regulation versus Executive Functioning Skills

Back to School Sleep Solutions following the pandemic

Separation Anxiety and Disorder.

Talking to your Child about Anxiety

Understanding and Managing Meltdowns

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