American Sleep and Epilepsy Centers
Bedtime Fears and Nightmares
Bedtime Fears and Nightmares
How to Help Your Child Sleep
What should I do if my child says he or she is too scared to go to sleep?
Listen and understand. Try to understand your child’s fears, and don’t dismiss or make fun of them.
Reassurance. It is important to reassure your child if he is afraid. Communicate the idea of safety over
and over again.
Teach coping skills. Teach your child coping skills and discuss alternative ways to respond, such as
“being brave” and thinking positive thoughts; you can also talk about how you deal with something that
you are afraid of. Also, provide examples of coping role models by reading stories about children who are
afraid and conquer their fears.
Have fun in the dark. Make being in the dark fun. Play flashlight tag. Have a treasure hunt and search
for things that glow in the dark.
Use your imagination and be creative. Use your imagination to fight imaginary fears, like monsters.
Many families have found “monster spray” to be a wonderful way to help a child cope with bedtime fears.
Some children are comforted by having a pet nearby for nighttime company (even a bedside fish tank
may help). Whenever possible, have your child be actively involved in coming up with solutions to help
him gain a sense of mastery and control.
Security object. Help your child become attached to a security object that she can keep in bed with her.
This can help your child feel more relaxed at bedtime and throughout the night.
Night light. No matter what your child seems to be afraid of, a night light can help. Night lights are fine
as long as it does not prevent your child from falling asleep. Another thing to try is leaving the bedroom
door open so that your child doesn’t feel isolated from the rest of the family.
Avoid scary television shows. Keep your child away from scary TV shows, videos or stories that may
add to his or her fears.
Relaxation training. Teach your child relaxation strategies to help him relax at bedtime and fall asleep.
For example, have your child imagine a relaxing scene, such a lying on the beach or watching a sunset.
This will give him something else to think about while lying in bed and help distract him from his fearful
thoughts. Also, it is physically impossible to be relaxed and scared at the same time.
Discuss your child’s fears during the day. Talk to your child about her fears during the day and how
she can be less frightened at night. Additionally, build your child’s self confidence during the day. If she
feels secure during the day, this can help her feel more secure at night, too.
Set limits. At the same time that you are reassuring your child, you do need to set limits. Setting limits is
necessary to prevent your child’s “being scared” behavior from being reinforced. Also encourage
appropriate behavior, such as remind your child “Remember, no crying and no calling at bedtime”.
Have your child stay in bed. Don’t encourage your child to get out of bed. He should stay in bed and
find out for himself that he really is safe so that he can learn to overcome his fears. It is much better for
you to stay with him in his room than it is for him to join you. If your child is too frightened to stay in his
room alone, it is okay to occasionally stay with him until he falls asleep. Don’t do this too frequently, or
even two nights in a row, as he may come to depend on your presence. If your child gets up in the
middle of the night and comes into your room, it is better to take him right back and gently tuck him into
Check on your child. If your child is anxious about you leaving, check on her frequently. It is better to
check on her a predictable schedule, every 5 or 10 minutes, so that your coming and reassuring her is
not based on her crying or calling out for you.
Star system. Some children get reinforced for being scared at night by getting lots of attention for being
afraid. If this is the case, switch the scenario. Tell him how proud you are of him for being brave. Set up
a star system so he can earn stars for being brave and sleeping on his own. After earning a certain
number of stars, he can turn them in for a treat, such as watching a favorite video, going to the park, or
baking chocolate chip cookies.