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Expert-Approved Tactics I've Used to Calm My Child's Bedtime Fears

Sara Gaynes Levy

December 21, 20237 minutes

Bedtime can be a battleground for parents, especially when your little one is scared to go to sleep. You're not alone in this. Many children experience night-time fears, starting from as young as two years old, right up to their teen years. As a mom of three, I’ve had plenty of nights where one of my kids was afraid.

While every child is different, there are tried-and-true tactics to help guide anxious sleepers through their fears. I spoke with Alanna McGinn, the founder of Good Night Sleep Site and a certified sleep consultant, for her tips on how to ease your child’s mind and make bedtime go more smoothly for everyone. 

Evaluate What’s Going On

First, assess the situation.  Is this a new fear or a long-standing issue? Do you remember what started it? And, importantly, how have you reacted to their fears so far? 

If it’s a relatively recent development that started after they watched a movie they found scary, you can work on helping them with the specific trigger. (More on this later.) Or you might notice a common theme in their fears — maybe they have trouble going to sleep after watching a certain TV show – and you may want to limit exposure to it, particularly before bedtime. When kids are afraid of the dark, McGinn says it’s totally OK to introduce a nightlight, which can come with added benefits beyond just alleviating the dark. Letting them choose the color on a light with color options, like a Hatch Rest device — something I do every night with my three-year-old, who is sometimes afraid of being alone — can give a scared child a sense of control that can also be comforting.   

If the issue has been going on longer, it might be time to look more deeply at your bedtime routine for answers. 

Paradoxically, the very behaviors parents often rely on to soothe -- staying in a child’s room longer to help them fall asleep or giving extra cuddles -- can help to establish and reinforce a longer bedtime routine. “It’s hard because with little ones, one night [the inability to fall asleep] might have been fear-based, and then they saw the reaction their parents gave them. Now they’re thinking, ‘I’m going to keep trying for that,’” explains McGinn. (Don’t worry, McGinn has strategies below on how to break this cycle, too.) 

The power of the bedtime routine

“Routine is always the most important thing for me,” says McGinn. A predictable bedtime routine, from brushing teeth to reading stories, can significantly ease anxiety. It's not about the activities themselves but the comfort of familiarity and connection. And it’s important to create a routine that leaves them feeling connected to you. “We really want to give them a lot of attachment time at bedtime,” says McGinn. “Whether that is story time, hangout time, cuddle time — we really want to fill their attachment tanks at bedtime to help them fall asleep better.” (And falling asleep independently!)

One great way to do this is to practice positive affirmations with them. “The more we say things to ourselves, the more our bodies and minds start to believe it,” says McGinn. With my oldest, I have her repeat "I am safe. I am loved" back to me if she’s expressing any anxiety at bedtime, and she instantly calms down. It really works! 

A tip from Hatch: With the help of Hatch+, you can help your little one relax before bed with expert-curated music, bedtime stories, and more, played directly from your Rest device. 

Deconstructing Fears

If your child is afraid of something specific — a monster or a villain from a movie they just watched — McGinn likes to do what she calls “fact-checking.” 

“Let’s say they’re afraid there’s a monster under their bed. Ask them, ‘Could a monster really fit under your bed? Let’s take a peek and see.’” Discussing and debunking these fears can diminish their power, she explains. “Sometimes saying it out loud can make it not so scary.”

McGinn says that she has clients ask a series of questions to help kids reframe their fear, things like: What if that monster was your friend? How would you introduce this monster to your friends at school? How could you make the monster look silly? 

“It rewrites the story,” she says, “and that can be a game changer.”

If what they’re afraid of is being alone, you might have noticed your child is trying to extend their bedtime routine by requesting more time with you or needing you to stay in their bed or room until they fall asleep. (As McGinn mentioned, they may not actually be afraid, and are just enjoying the extra time with you.) 

To work through this, you can try introducing something they associate with you to sleep with, like an old T-shirt of yours or one of your pillowcases. (My oldest sleeps with a shirt we bought on a vacation together, and she loves how it reminds her of both me and a fun memory we share.) McGinn says she often has her clients pick out a stuffy for a scared child and have them use it as a placeholder for mom or dad.  For older kids, McGinn likes starting a “shared journal,” a place where kids can write about their nighttime fears and anxieties that they don’t feel quite ready to talk about. “Once they know that we know what's going on in their life, that in itself can alleviate a lot of the fears and anxieties,” she says. 

Lastly, if your child is having persistent nightmares and these strategies aren’t working, McGinn says you may want to move bedtime earlier. “Typically, [recurrent] nightmares are a sign of an overtired child,” she says. 

To break it all down, there are actionable steps you can take to help fearful kids get the rest they need. Here's a quick, five-step checklist for parents to help manage bedtime fears:

  1. Identify and Understand the Fear
    * Assess whether the fear is new or long-standing
    * Note any specific triggers like a scary movie or TV show
  2. Establish a Comforting Bedtime Routine
    * Create a predictable series of bedtime activities that are calming and foster a sense of security and connection
  3. Introduce Comforting Elements
    * Use a nightlight if fear is of the dark and let your child choose the color for added control
    * Offer a comfort object, like a special stuffed animal, that reminds kids of safety and attachment
  4. Use Positive Affirmations and Reassurances
    * Practice simple, calming affirmations with your child like "I am safe. I am loved."
  5. Deconstruct and Reframe the Fear
    * For specific fears (like monsters), engage in logical discussions to debunk them
    * Encourage creative thinking, like imagining the monster as a friendly character

Remember, every child is unique. These strategies offer a starting point, but finding what works best for your family is key. Here's to peaceful nights and fearless dreams!