What are nighttime fears? How is that different from something like an anxiety disorder? How can I respond to nighttime fears?
Nighttime fears involve any fears that are associated with being in the dark and/or alone at bedtime or during the night. The most common nighttime fears are fear of being separated from parents/caregivers, fear of imaginary creatures such as monsters and ghosts, fear of scary dreams, fear of the dark, and fears related to personal safety (e.g., burglars). Nighttime fears are common in children and usually are transient, meaning they come and go. However, in about 10% of children these fears become severe, persistent, and may negatively influence a child’s functioning. Many children with persistent nighttime fears also have difficulties falling asleep or waking at night. They usually need a parent to help them fall asleep or fall back to sleep during the night. Some children with nighttime fears have fears during the day or are generally anxious.
Many families respond to nighttime fears by allowing their child to move to their bed to sleep. Staying near your child’s bed or allowing your child to sleep in your bed (or room) may help your child’s fears in the short term. But, this lets your child avoid the stressful situation of being alone. It can also be highly reinforcing for your child and may perpetuate the problem in the long term. These response might also create a new problem, especially if you are not interested in a long-term co-sleeping solution.
So – what should you try?
Persistent nighttime fears can be treated with cognitive-behavioral approaches and techniques such as relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing), cognitive restructuring (learning how to think about the nighttime fears in a different way), and/or imaginal or real exposure to the feared object (having your child gradually come in contact with the feared object over time either through your child’s imagination or in real life). However, these interventions are mainly effective for children age 6 and older and are often done with the help of a professional (for example, a psychologist). There are many effective interventions for younger children with nighttime fears. You can help your child be less fearful by making being in the dark fun, such as reading stories by flashlight or putting glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling. Spraying a room with “monster spray” (a spray bottle filled with water) can make a big difference. For some children, introducing a stuffed animal to help manage fears, such as the Huggy Puppy technique may be helpful.