Sometime around her second birthday, your toddler may start refusing to sleep without a light on, or wake up crying from dreams. This is common, and there are several good reasons for it! Luckily, there are steps you can take to help your little one overcome her nighttime fears.
What Causes Toddler Nighttime Fears?
According to experts there are several possible reasons little ones become wary of bedtime, including these:
Their imaginations are growing, but they can’t yet distinguish fantasy from reality. It’s easy for toddlers to get spooked by shadows or sounds at night, because any scary image they attach to them feels very real.
There is nothing to distract their minds at night. During the day, toddlers are busy. At night their imaginations are free to roam, and they can easily roam into scary territory.
They can remember things for longer. A capacity for longer-term memories means your toddler is building a bank of potentially-scary things that may pop into her mind at night.
They may have nightmares. Waking up from a nightmare in a dark room can feel scary (even for adults!). If your child wakes up screaming or thrashing and inconsolable, it may be a night terror (which is different than a nightmare). You can read about night terrors here.
They may have a fearful temperament. Some children are simply more fearful than others. For these little ones, nighttime can be especially anxiety-provoking.
They may be experiencing life changes. Routines and familiarity offer little ones comfort and security. Life changes like moving to a different house, parents divorcing, a new childcare arrangement, or a new sibling can trigger anxiety, especially at night.
Helping Your Child Cope with Nighttime Fears
Be mindful about TV and other media. First, take a look at The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for screen time. You’ll see they recommend introducing screens no earlier than age 18 months, after which limited screen time should be shared with an adult. When it comes to nighttime fears, sharing the screen with your toddler allows you to monitor the images she sees, and talk about anything that upsets her. Also keep in mind that “passive screen time” (when a child overhears a family member’s screen time) can also affect little ones because the content may not be age-appropriate.
Pay attention to book-related fears. Even friendly dragons, good witches, and happy monsters in toddler books may frighten your little one. She may tell you she’s scared while you’re reading, or the images may only scare her at night. Either way, shelf these books until her nighttime fears subside.
Avoid downplaying fears. It can feel exasperating when your toddler wakes you up in the middle of the night crying about a monster. Telling her it’s silly, though, may make her feel confused or ashamed, because to her it feels very real.
Acknowledge and normalize her feelings. Let your little one know you understand how she feels, and that it’s okay to feel afraid. This small step can offer big comfort. And don’t forget to cuddle, rub her back, or hold her hand; physical touch goes a long way too.
Offer reassurance. Gently remind her that her room is safe, and that you’re nearby if she needs you.
Distract her from her fears. Tell her a happy story, sing her favorite song, or talk about a favorite activity like going to the park. Over time, you can teach her to distract herself from fears by thinking about things that make her feel happy.
Use low light to cut the darkness. A nightlight, hallway light, or even a flashlight she can keep next to the bed can help her feel safe at night.
Use comfort objects. Favorite stuffed animals, special blankets, or even a framed photograph of you beside the bed can offer security.
Keep a calming bedtime routine. This can help your child wind down for sleep and fall asleep easily. When the routine involves time with you, along with happy stories or songs, it can help her ease into nighttime feeling secure and content.
If these supportive measures don’t help your little one overcome nighttime fears, or if her fears persist or interfere with her getting enough sleep, check in with your pediatrician for guidance.