How to Deal with Nighttime Fears in Children

A little girl is hiding under her covers because she has nighttime fears
Christine Brown

Christine Brown

It’s really hard to know what to do when our children have nighttime fears.  We want to make sure that we are supporting and reassuring our little ones, while not creating any bad habits that we will have to undo.  It’s a balance! 

Let’s explore nighttime fears first. Then I’ll provide you with tools to help you navigate these challenges with your little one.

The Most Common Nighttime Fears for Children

The most common nighttime fears include:

  • Fear of the dark – children are oftentimes asking for more and more light
  • Fear of monsters – children will share that they are afraid of monsters or there is a monster in their closet or under the bed
  • Fear of shadows – children will share that they are seeing scary things in their room

Even if your child has been a champion sleeper since birth, once these fears rear their ugly head, your child may also resist being alone in their room. This looks like a fear of being alone, but it starts with the nighttime fears and then they want to have a parent there with them.

When Do Kids Get Scared of The Dark & Other Nighttime Fears?

Around 2-2.5 years old, children’s imaginations explode! This makes them so fun to play with. Now they are capable of imaginative play. 

The downside is that now children’s imaginations can run wild, which can spark nighttime fears in your child.

Fears tend to peak in between 3 – 6 years of age and lessen as time goes on.

If your child is under 2 years of age and having a tough time settling at bedtime or waking in the night, it likely isn’t from fears.  While there are many potential causes, the top reasons I see younger toddlers having challenges are sleep associations, separation anxiety, overtiredness at bedtime and the sleep environment isn’t optimized.

How Do I Know My Child Is Developing Fears?

Depending on their age, they will either tell you verbally or through their actions.

I knew fears of the dark had started with my twin boys when they would no longer follow me into their bedroom if it was dark.  They’d wait in the hall until I turned the light on and then they’d come in.  They also said to me “too dark, mommy!”

As fears of the dark moved into fear of shadows and monsters, they would tell me that they were seeing scary things in their room at night or they saw a monster.

Younger toddlers, they may not have the words yet. Your child may do what my boys did above and wait in the hall. Or your child, who is normally a great sleeper, may wake up at night screaming.

Practical Tips If Your Child Has Nighttime Fears

Fear of the Dark

My number one suggestion for fear of the dark is to add sleep-safe red nightlights.  We all sleep best in the dark, but if you need to have a light on due to fears, red is best. 

Our first nightlight was the Stoplight Sleep Enhancing Clock, which we introduced when our twins were 2.5.  This also doubles as an ok to wake clock if your little one has nighttime wakings or early morning wake-ups!

As they got older and the fears peaked, we added additional red nightlights to their room.  At one point, I think we had 5!  They are now older and as the fear subsided, I stripped nightlights out and they now only have 1.

For all our favorite toddler, preschooler and big kid sleep products, check out these suggestions.

What Not To Do:

Don’t turn on the overhead light or have bright lamps on.  These will affect your child’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. 

Fear of Shadows

Little kids don’t understand shadows so the best thing we can do is to show your child what creates shadows. 

When you are out for a walk, show your child their shadow behind them and explain that the sun is shining its light on your body and your body is making a shadow. 

At bedtime, do finger puppets on the ceiling and explain the shadow is the light shining on your fingers and your fingers are making a shadow. 

Fear of Monsters

If fear of monsters comes up, my #1 tip is to monitor closely what your child is watching.  I remember being so excited to share my favorite Disney movie with my kids.  Well, I forgot that Ursula is one scary ass sea witch and didn’t realize it until my son was crying and saying “scary, scary!” #momfail

A lot of the time, even Disney movies can have more mature content that our children’s young minds can’t handle.  Like WHY do the parents always have to die? 

If fear of monsters comes up, I’d be heading back to Daniel Tiger, Coco Melon, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Sesame Street.

Secondly, save your money on monster spray and don’t go on monster hunts.  These activities validate that monsters are real.  

Your stance should always be the truth. “Monsters aren’t real.”

I follow this with questions like “Monsters are Elmo and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, Are you afraid of them? Remember, they aren’t real.”

I also like to ask the question… “I’m X years old and I have never met a monster.  Have you ever met one?”

What To Do During The Day To Help With Nighttime Fears

Understanding Your Child’s Fears

Talking with your child about their fear can help you gain insight into how best to approach their fear. It can also help them understand that their fear isn’t irrational or silly; it’s real and valid and something they can work through.

Talking About Their Fear Together

Sometimes simply talking about fears can greatly reduce their power over our little ones. That’s why it’s important to talk openly and honestly with your child about their nighttime fears DURING THE DAY.

Ask questions like:

  • “What makes you scared when you try to go to bed?”
  • “What would make you feel safer?”

By doing this, you will create an environment where your child feels comfortable talking about their fear without judgment or ridicule—and by doing so together, you may find yourself conquering those fears together!

Maintain A Consistent Bedtime Routine

When our children are going through anything major developmentally, we don’t want to veer away from our routine. Routines provide structure and consistency to a child’s day-to-day life, which can help reduce stress and build confidence in children who may otherwise feel overwhelmed by the unknown. Establishing rituals like reading books together or singing lullabies can also create positive associations with bedtime that alleviate any anxiety or uncertainty about what the night might bring.

Provide Comfort Objects

In addition to routines, providing comfort objects during bedtime can work wonders at calming a child’s fear of the dark. This could be anything from stuffed animals and blankets to nightlights or even an extra pillow or two they can snuggle up with while they drift off into dreamland. Anything that helps make them feel safe and secure can go a long way toward relieving any apprehension they may have about going to sleep each night.

What To Do at Night If Your Child Wakes Up Scared

  • Stay calm. If your child says they are scared and you have a big reaction, that can signal that saying “I’m scared” is going to yield attention.  They may say they are scared long beyond when the fears are actually real. 
  • Empathize with your child’s fears. These fears are real to them and they may need some extra TLC while working through this time.  “I know you are scared. I get scared too sometimes.” Let your child know about a fear you’ve had and how you got over it. This shows you understand and can also help them problem solve.
  • Calm your child, reassure and then go back to independent sleep. 
  • Avoid bedsharing. If you bring your child into bed with you, you validate that there is something to be afraid of. It also can continue to give their fear life. “It’s ok to be scared, but after one more hug and one more kiss, you need to close your eyes and go back to sleep. Mommy is going back to her room to sleep.”
  • If your little one is saying they are scared but aren’t acting scared, they may have learned that this is a trigger word to delay bedtime or to get nighttime attention. Keep this in mind with how you respond. 

I hope these tips to help conquer nighttime fears help! If your child’s nighttime fears aren’t resolving and everyone is overtired, it may be time for an Ask Me Anything session so we can uncover the root of the problem and come up with a plan to help your child (and you) get the rest you need!

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