After some terrorizing babyhood years, my kids emerged into toddlerhood and beyond as great sleepers. Then one night, followed by many to come, my son started to have trouble sleeping, often ending up in our room in the middle of the night complaining of nightmares. Ah parenting; just when you think you’ve got something figured out, your kids hit a new developmental phase and everything changes. This can be great solace when going through a particularly tough patch with the kiddos, but as in my recent case, quite jarring when things are running smoothly.
With nighttime sleep issues being one of the top struggles with parenting young children, I am clearly not alone in my plight. But it’s an important battle to fight, not only to promote healthy sleep habits for my kids so they can thrive during the daytime, but also to protect my own healthy sleep habits. And while we can’t control nightmares per say, there are several things parents can do to set the stage for a peaceful evening and nighttime slumber for the whole family.
- Scrap the Scary. Children are blessed and cursed with very active imaginations, particularly at the preschool age. Scary stories and shows can feel very real and vivid, spiking fear at night when anxieties reach their peak. So rather than pushing the boundaries of what they can handle, keep stories and shows light hearted, fun, and funny. We didn’t pay it much mind when my son started loving the Goosebumps series, happy that he was reading something he enjoyed independently. But it was when he happened upon a Goosebumps show on Netflix that his bedtime fears were ignited (I remember having a similar experience as a young child after the haunted house ride at the fair). If you think something might be scary, play it safe and encourage other materials. And don’t forget of course, sometimes there can be nothing scarier to a child than the daily news.
- Style Bedrooms to be a Haven of Safety and Comfort. A bedroom should feel like a safe and comforting respite from the rest of the world, not overrun with technology and clutter. Creating a warm and cozy bed with soft sheets and pillows, favorite stuffed animals and blankets, a comfortable place to lounge, and soft lighting and sounds can do wonders for establishing children’s own rooms (and not their parent’s!) as a safe and comfortable place they love to spend time.
- Hold Firm on Keeping Kids in Their Own Room. Unless you are a co-sleeping family, if you’d like your kids to sleep in their own rooms, it’s best to be firm about this boundary. Letting your children crawl into the parent’s bed at night occasionally will teach them to continually test this boundary when scared. That is not to say you shouldn’t comfort them when afraid, but it’s best to do so in their own rooms.
- Provide Mood Lighting. Fear of the dark is extremely common among young kids. Simply adding a nightlight to your child’s room can go a long way to help with these fears (bonus points if you let them pick out a nightlight themselves). The cute little owl above has a choice of colors and diffuses essential oils made especially for kids. In our house we also have LED nightlights with lighting sensors running the length of our hallways. This keeps our home alight during the evening so the house never feels overly dark, as well as setting a clear path for late night trips to the bathroom. The key to a good nightlight is making sure it neither too bright or tinted with blue, two things known to disrupt one’s sleep cycle.
- Investigate Daytime Triggers. Built-up anxiety in the evenings, as well as nightmares—is sometimes a coping response to events or issues plaguing your child during the day. If your child is experiencing either of these, take the time discuss with them any issues or stresses they might be encountering, especially if there has been a recent life change such a move or a distressing family event. Helping your child manage daytime stresses can lead to more positive nighttime behaviors.
- Imagine Positive Scenarios. Encourage the use of those young, imaginative brains for positive thoughts, rather than scary ones at bed time. If my kids are scared or having a tough time sleeping, we come up with fun imaginative scenarios to think through (dream birthday parties or vacations are always a hit). Bring on Mr. Sandman by encouraging your child to be extremely detailed, not only visualizing their positive dreams, but thinking of the smells, tastes, and textures of their thoughts. Even as an adult I find myself calling on this tactic when I have trouble sleeping or am overcome by negative thoughts (although my imaginary scenarios usually involve lottery winnings or designing my dream home).
- Promote Exercise and Fresh Air. Just like with adults, getting plenty of exercise and fresh air can help you sleep better. My kids both fall- and stay asleep better when they have plenty physical activity and outside time during the day, be it with sports practices, swimming, bike riding, or family hikes. When one’s body is tired at the end of the day, the brain often follows suit.
- Enforce Regular Bedtimes. Children and their little bodies (not to mention their dear parents) thrive when clear routines are enforced. Establishing a regular bedtime is one of the best ways to keep your kids in a positive sleep pattern, avoiding the downfalls of both over- or under-tiredness at bedtime. You know you’ve got a good handle on this when your kids fall asleep relatively easily and wake up on their own around the same time each morning.
- Logically Discuss Bedtime Dilemmas During the Day. Whether it’s nightmares, fear of the dark, or fear of being alone, both children and parents alike are not their most clearheaded come evening. If your child has an evening episode, comfort them in the moment, then make sure and logically talk through the incident the next day. Many scary thoughts lose their power during the daytime, allowing parent and child to make a plan to better handle these nighttime occurrences. Daytime is also a good time to find out what specifically is scaring your child, and then problem solve, be it a window that can be curtained, noises that can fade with a sound machine, or moving toys that cause scary shadows.
- Build-in Tech-Free Wind Down Time. I am a huge proponent of keeping technology out of the bedroom as I feel it muddies the boundaries between the rest and respite of home and the outside world. Whatever your particular beliefs, it’s important for kids to turn off their often-overstimulating technology at nighttime, and have a buffer of downtime for mellow and relaxing activities such as reading (which naturally makes one tired), journaling, and listening to music before bed. This can also be a great opportunity for parents to practice what they preach by modeling positive, tech-free nighttime behaviors.
- Buddy Up. Having children sleep alone in their own rooms is certainly a modern concept, and one that often takes a bit of adjusting for all involved. If your child is really struggling with the fear of being alone at night, consider adding a buddy to their room. This can be simply moving the dog or cat bed onto their bedroom floor for some four-legged companionship, or if there are siblings in the house you can consider moving them into the same room as long as everyone is on board and it doesn’t interfere with the other children’s sleep.
- Set Clear Boundaries about Wake-Up Time: Setting a boundary such as “you are to sleep in your own bed” is only possible when it’s clear for your child how to comply. The increasing popular alarm clocks like this ready to rise version light up when it’s an appropriate time for your child to get up. If your child can tell time, simply provide a bedside clock, letting them know when it’s an appropriate time seize the day. On the weekends in our house, we have the easy-to-follow rule that you can’t bother mom and dad until it’s light outside.
Getting good sleep is essential for everyone’s happiness and health, which is why it’s so important to protect the evening slumbers of one’s family. If you, like so many parents out there, have a child struggling with nighttime sleep issues, considering employing some of my 12 strategies for coping with bedtime fears and nightmares. Wishing all you parents out there a wonderful day, and a restful evening!
Feature photo by Jenko Ataman/Adobe