Little Kids

How to handle nighttime fears

Nighttime fears — like being afraid of the dark or of bad guys — are typical at this age.

By Wendy Haaf
Photo: iStockphoto Photo: iStockphoto

Shortly after Farrah Schwartz’s second child was born, her elder daughter, Julia, then three, began to resist going to sleep. “She said was scared of monsters under the bed,” the Toronto mom recalls. While it occurred to Schwartz that this could be a strategy to push back bedtime, Julia’s distress seemed genuine.

Nighttime fears crop up between the ages of three and six, due in part to the fact that kids this age typically have vivid imaginations. They are still working out the difference between fantasy and reality, so fictional characters, like the Tooth Fairy or Caillou, may seem as real as the man next door. (Sometimes, as in Julia’s case, nightmares play a role as well.) It’s also a time when kids start wrestling with the knowledge that some things in life are outside of our control — a notion that may be easily pushed aside during the bright, busy daytime hours, only to loom large when the lights go out. And for sensitive or anxious children, the stress of life changes, like moving to a new house, switching to a big-kid bed, or — like Julia — welcoming a new sibling, may intensify the situation.

So until your child has developed the ability to discern between what’s real and what’s not, how can you help her cope with her fears and make bedtime go more smoothly? Since every child is different, it does involve some trial and error, not to mention a dash of creativity. Schwartz and her husband tried common-sense measures like encouraging Julia to take a stuffed toy to bed, installing a night light, discussing the difference between fantasy and reality, and reassuring her that Mom and Dad would keep her safe.

For other families, a mattress on the floor of the parents’ room can be a sanity saver, says Scott Wier, a former assistant professor of psychology at Western University in London, Ont. He used this approach with his own daughter, but it was temporary — just until she grew out of the phase.


Knowing that even seemingly innocuous cartoons and children’s movies can feature villains that spark an active imagination, Julia’s parents also cut back on her TV and movie watching. On the other hand, some kids can use a children’s book, fairy tale or movie about conquering bad guys as an empowering tool, by picturing themselves in the lead role. Some kids may find it comforting to confirm that closets and under-bed areas are monster-free with a last look before lights out.

When Julia’s nightly struggles continued nonetheless, Schwartz tried harnessing her daughter’s imagination, starting with a sprinkling of “magic monster repellent” at bedtime. Experts are divided over this specific tactic (some argue it can backfire by reinforcing the notion that monsters are real), but new evidence hints Schwartz was on the right track. Avi Sadeah, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Children’s Sleep-Wake Disorders, is the co-author of a recent study on kids’ nighttime fears. Sadeah says that transferring your child’s fears onto a supposedly frightened stuffed animal, and turning your child into the caretaker, is highly effective, particularly for kids with powerful imaginations. Parents simply give their child a stuffed animal, with the instructions that “Huggy puppy is sad, and it’s up to you to take care of her, be her friend and make sure she’s not afraid at night.”

Sure enough, in the end, it was a magical talisman that helped Julia banish her bedtime fears. After she brought up the subject at preschool, one of her teachers sent home a dream catcher, which Julia arranged on her bed, and the monsters (not to mention the nightmares) vanished virtually overnight.

A version of this article appeared in our May 2013 issue with the headline "Monsters, Inc.," pp. 64.

This article was originally published on Apr 17, 2013

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