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Mama, There's a Monster Under My Bed! Banishing Bedtime Fears

Photo by Saptak Ganguly / Stocksy United / 79708
Photo by Saptak Ganguly / Stocksy United

While it’s wonderful that children's imaginations can make the ordinary magical (that cardboard box is definitely a rocket ship!), imagination can sometimes make the ordinary scary for a small child—think about that dark closet, which come bedtime, is suddenly full of monsters.

“Nighttime fears are very common between ages three and six and often appear as children develop the ability to imagine,” says Dr. Elizabeth Super, a children’s sleep specialist at OHSU  in Portland, Oregon. Bedtime fears (as opposed to nightmares or bad dreams) arise during waking hours, as your child prepares to fall asleep. What should you do? "Stick to your sleep routine and help your child address her fears by being really validating and reassuring," says Dr. Super.

These practical approaches will help put your child's bedtime fears to rest:

Scared of the dark?

Turn on just enough light to allow your child to fall asleep. While a lot of light can inhibit a good night’s sleep, a bit of light will help your child move past her fears and fall asleep on her own—after all, there’s no good sleep if she can’t get to sleep.  A special night light—that she gets to choose and then turn on herself—could help keep her fears at bay.

Monsters under the…?

Don’t dismiss his fears or reason them away, instead encourage your child to get in on the solution. For example, whip up a batch of monster repellent: Mix a little lavender oil (it has a calming aroma) with water and put the potion in a clean spray bottle. Have your little hero squirt it under the bed, in the closet, etc. and then check together to make sure his room is all clear. He’ll feel more in control—and his room will smell lovely.

Spooked by the TV?

If your child is suddenly scared to get into bed, consider what she’s been watching. Did she see something that spooked her? Sometimes what’s frightening to a child isn’t immediately apparent to an adult (like those flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz…), so ask her.  If you stop watching the scary show, or reading the spooky book, it might help her settle down. And if the movie made a lasting impression? Remind her that it’s pretend and together, imagine a different ending to the story.  In your version, maybe those flying monkeys are busy delivering gumballs to all their monkey friends.

Worried about…?

The world is a pretty big, confusing place and growing up is a lot of work. Setting aside a regular 5 to 10 minutes of “worry time” every day can be really helpful for older children, starting around age five. At this time he is likely able to express his feelings more clearly, so talking to him about whatever is bothering him can help ease his fears. Just pick a time to chat that’s not immediately before bed.

Remember that this too will pass!  Most children will grow past their bedtime fears with your support and reassurance.

Meet Dr. Super

A member of the general pediatric team at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, Dr. Elizabeth Super has a strong interest in sleep and pursued fellowship training in Sleep Medicine. When she’s not caring for children in her job, she enjoys exploring the outdoors with her husband and her two young children.

Read more articles by Dr. Super. 

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