You’ve spent months trying to master your toddler’s nightly tuck-in, and you’re finally reaping the rewards with their blissful slumber. But around the age of 3, your perfected routine may start to crumble when your kiddo suddenly seems spooked by nightmares or has a fear of the dark.
At this age, a child’s imagination is rich and filled with vivid possibilities. Their thought process dovetails nicely when it relates to pretend play and dress-up games, but it can rock the house if nighttime anxiety becomes a regular pattern.
“Preschoolers tend to have a difficult time differentiating between reality and fantasy—hence the fear of monsters under the bed or the boogie man lurking in the closet,” explains Kim West, LCSW, aka “The Sleep Lady,” a child and family therapist and author of “Good Night, Sleep Tight.”
As kids move into elementary school, their nighttime worries may be based more on actual events, including fear of storms, injury, or fire, she notes.
“And sometimes children become alarmed about the outside world entering their own, which could mean being worried about burglars,” West says.
Conquering night fright can be a bit of a production, but it’s necessary in order to get back on a solid sleep track. Here are seven ways to quiet your child’s racing mind and ease nightmares:
1. Light the way
You may already have a lamp or a plug-in down the hall, but consider letting your tot help to choose another, a special nightlight that he gets to turn on at bedtime. Encouraging a bit of ownership may ease his worries and give him peace of mind in the dark.
2. Chat them up
“Ask your child to try and open up about what’s bothering her at night and then remind her of her safety,” suggests West. Don’t minimize her fears. Acknowledge them, because they’re very real in her mind, and give her your understanding and sympathy.
3. Read all about it
Check out storybooks about kids tackling nightmares at your local library or go online to order one or two. Reading with him about characters who’ve dealt with nighttime jitters can show him that his fears can be overcome.
4. Designate a helper
Many kids have a lovey—either a stuffed animal, blanket, or another soft item—that helps them get through the night. Selecting a particular toy to comfort your tot can be a nice bedtime transition. And if your child has one already, let him know he can rely on his “friend” to keep him company and help him fall asleep.