Bye-Bye Bedtime Fears
No mommy, don’t go.
Does your toddler have difficulty winding down for sleep? Bedtime fears are EXTREMELY common. They typically begin around 2 years of age and may last for years. Most children have some bedtime fears at some point.
Why do kids have bedtime fears?
Kids spend all day in imaginative play and it’s difficult to just turn it off at bedtime. Fears come in all shapes and sizes. From the fear of the dark, monsters, and noises, to something under the bed or in the closet.
I also think it’s helpful to understand things from a developmental perspective. So, let’s take a moment and consider what is likely contributing to fears.
We know that young kids experience separation anxiety, so it makes sense that they’d fuss when you leave the room.
Toddlers are defiant by nature because they want more control over their world so having little say at bedtime is a setup for conflict.
Now factor this in, a toddler’s brain is still developing, and they have little control over their emotions.
As if that wasn’t enough - now realize that toddlers don’t really understand time so tomorrow morning seems like forever away.
Lastly, factor in that because their brain is still developing, they’re unable to talk themselves down. Most kids don’t develop this ability until 5-6 years old when the frontal lobes start to mature. The frontal lobe of the brain allows us to reason, problem-solve, and make plans. It also is responsible for helping us manage our emotions.
As with every toddler-related problem, it helps to see things from a toddler’s perspective.
In a nutshell, Your toddler feels good and safe, and secure when he’s with you. Most of the efforts at delaying bedtime are to prolong that good safe feeling.
Okay, so you can see that there are many solid reasons for toddlers to fight bedtime. But they still need sleep and you need some time for yourself.
Yes, you’re allowed to want your kids to get to bed so you can have some time to put up your feet, read a book, watch TV, or do whatever. No, you don’t need to feel guilty. Just the opposite. Your needs matter too! Plus, you have less to give when you’re running on empty.
So let’s talk about how to respectfully, lovingly, yet still effectively manage those bedtime fears.
We’ll start with a few generalizations about bedtime and then we’ll focus on fears.
First, An early bedtime is best, so your kids have some reserve to manage those giant feelings. Really think about this for a moment - how do YOU manage to do something difficult or stressful when you’re exhausted? PROBABLY AS WELL AS YOU’D LIKE. Now think about doing this when you’re not already at your wit's end. Clearly, earlier is easier for both of you.
Create a calming SHORT bedtime routine that does not stretch on forever. Just like when you say goodbye at dropoffs, it's best to keep it short. The same is true for bedtime. When you stretch it out, it sends the message there’s something to worry about.
- A favorite (non-scary) story - 2 books is ideal
- A brief chat about the best part of the day
- Goodnight to the moon and room
I like making an art project about everything BUT I particularly like it for the bedtime routine.
Take a pic of:
Saying good night to the moon and the room
Put these up on the wall and they are now the boss. Kids love to follow rules… so make the chart the boss that both you and your child need to follow.
Now let’s talk about how to manage fears.
- First, allow your child to talk about their fears if they want to. But don’t push or coax them.
- Avoid dismissing or minimizing your child’s fears.
AVOID NEGATING FEELINGS:
INSTEAD OF SAYING, “THERE’S NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF”
SAY, “You’re scared of monsters. It’s okay, we all have fears. Mommy and daddy are here to keep you safe.”
Avoid diminishing their fears:
Instead of saying - “Stop crying. Monsters aren’t real.”
Say, “I don’t see any monsters but I know you’re worried about them.”
Show your child you understand by saying something like, “Do you know what I find helpful when I’m scared? I hug my pillow and I sing a song in my head.”
- Encourage a security object if your child is old enough.
- Realize Bedtime fears are not manipulation. Your kids are just trying to spend more time with you because that makes them feel good. Your child may not be complaining of fears, they may just be resisting bedtime because toddlers and children don’t have insight into their feelings. Anticipate pushback and validate the feeling but don’t change the plan.
- Remember you’re the boss. Be the cool, calm, and collected bedtime guide. It’s possible to recognize and be understanding of fears while still holding sleep boundaries. Your kids aren’t going to like this but that’s our job as parents. To make good decisions that we know are important for our kid's health and well-being, even if our kids don’t like it.
Realistically, kids feel better when you are the leader. When your kid freaks out because you’re only going to read 3 books, you can be understanding while still holding the limit. It would sound like this: “I know you’re sad I’m only going to read three books tonight. But sleep is important and its bedtime.”
When the family came back a few weeks later, Jake was going to bed with very minor objections once the routine was cut down to 20 minutes.
Will everyone see the same amazing results? Some will, and some won’t. But this will lay the foundation for better sleep. There may be other changes needed, like an earlier bedtime.
Okay, let’s get back to managing bedtime fears. Now we’ve talked about the fight-or-flight response and how it’s useless to try and reason, teach, or calm your toddler when they are all revved up. So it makes good sense to work on self-calming skills during the day when your child is relaxed. So for starters, teach your child deep breathing skills so they can rely on it when needed
These skills are beneficial, and you’ll hear me talking about them frequently as they help your child in any and all stressful situations. I have a module on this in our online course, Toddlers Made Easy.
DEEP BREATHING - Teach your kids deep breathing. There are several ways to teach this. You can teach: SMELL A FLOWER. Ask your child to imagine she’s smelling a flower (or substitute something). A deep breath in through the nose and a nice slow breath out through the mouth. Or you can teach your child to BLOW OUT THE CANDLES. Again, a deep breath in through the nose, and a slow, long breath through the mouth.
Deep breath works especially well when you both do it together. But it’s not for everyone—some kids get annoyed with deep breathing instead of relaxed.
Let's look at how to use deep breathing in the moment.
Name the feeling, “You’re sad it’s bedtime. I understand sweetheart.” I would come up with a nonverbal signal which means take a few deep breaths. With my kids, I’d tap my nose. They thought it was funny and tended to lighten the moment.
Another really effective calming strategy is to teach your child to use a mantra.
MANTRA - I used a mantra with my kids (and my dog) that goes like this: Mommy loves me, Daddy loves me, Nana loves me… and so on. Mantras are empowering and calming. Again, this should be taught at a time when life is quiet and relaxed. Practice using a mantra during play.
Be On The Same Team
This is a theme I go back to over and over. Avoid thinking about bedtime stalling as something your child is doing to you. He/she is not trying to manipulate you. Instead, think, my child is having a hard time and feels uncomfortable going to bed. How can I help make this easier?
You can’t leave the room peacefully if you’ve yelling, stomping, and angry. Your child wants you, and the comfort and safety that comes from being with you. When we are revved up, our kids need us even more as they’re trying to get back to that good safe feeling. So, they will keep pushing back or coming out of the room.
I know it’s not easy to manage bedtimes without getting wound up. But here are a few steps that can help:
First, take a few minutes for yourself before the bedtime routine begins.
Make bedtime at a reasonable hour so both of you have more reserve to deal with it.
And use a mantra to keep yourself steady. As a mom of grown-up kids, I want to reassure you - this is a stage that will pass. Consider mantras like, “I can do this” or “This stage that will pass”
A word of caution. you might assume, staying with my child until he falls asleep would be the best/easiest solution. After all, my son needs me. But that doesn’t really solve/strengthen your child’s coping skills.
So it’s important to believe in your child’s strength and ability to manage hard things…and to let them know you believe in them. Say something like, “I know you find bedtime hard. But I also know you’re strong and you can do this. Pretty soon, you’ll feel more comfortable in your bed at night.”
When we call our kids a bad sleeper, a picky eater, or shy… they assume this label and live up to it. Instead, narrate the problem but with hope and optimism.
“You’re having a hard time going to bed. Sometimes I’ve had the same problem. But I think you’re going to find it easier really soon.”
When my eldest daughter was having difficulty falling asleep, we put a tape player by her bedside (yes… I'm that old) and she fell asleep to Beethoven Lives Upstairs. The tape would play on a loop all night. She later became a professional opera singer and a decade later a physician.
While we’ve covered much today, there’s still much more to discuss. I have a bite-sized course coming soon on managing bedtime like a pro. I’ll let you know more about this when it’s completed.