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Giving a child control of their fear is the first step to sound sleep for all.

For some children, nighttime fears are common, and can interfere with falling asleep.  This can result in a child stalling at bedtime, not getting enough sleep, and/or being sleepy and irritable the next day.  So how is a parent to deal with these “monsters”?

Part of normal development is imagination, and for younger children the ability to tell the difference between real and imaginary is not yet developed.  In addition, all rational thought is gone when a child (or adult) is tired at night.  So simply telling your child that there is no such thing as monsters will not work.

That said, allowing a child into your bed or staying with him or her while they fall asleep is also not the answer.  This simply teaches the child that by saying “I’m afraid” they will get extra attention from you, resulting in long bedtime routines and disrupted nighttime sleep for everyone!

So what is a tired parent to do?  To start, it is important to validate your child’s fear without saying he or she is wrong.  Something like, “It sounds like you are really scared right now,” tells your child that you are listening to their feelings.

Plan a Bedtime Routine that Works

Give your child control over his or her fear.  First, have your child create signs such as “No Monsters Allowed” or “Monsters Stay Out!”  They can hang these on their door or the walls to tell the monsters to stay away.  Second, use “monster spray” (or witch, ghost, or boogeyman spray) to keep the monsters away.  This is a water bottle (or air freshener) that is labeled “Monster Spray”.  Your child can then spray this around his or her room to protect him or her from monsters.  Simply tell your child that monster spray keeps monsters away the same way that bug spray keeps bugs away.  Or you can say that monsters are allergic to this spray and they don’t like it because it makes them sneeze.  Children can use their spray as needed both at bedtime or if they wake during the night.

Finally, don’t allow children to watch television shows or play video games that have any sort of scary content (even the news is scary for young kids).  They will often keep these images in their heads at night, helping to increase their fears.

Helping your child sleep is one of the best gifts you can give him or her.  By recognizing your child is scared at bedtime, and giving him or her ways to be in control of this fear, everyone will sleep a little better!

Lisa Meltzer

Lisa Meltzer is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at National Jewish Health and an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pomona College, and her master’s degree and Ph.D. in clinical and health psychology from the University of Florida. Dr. Meltzer completed her clinical internship and post-doctoral fellowship at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where she was awarded a Pickwick Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Sleep by the National Sleep Foundation. After 5 years on faculty at CHOP/University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, she relocated to her hometown of Denver, Colorado and joined the faculty at National Jewish Health. Dr. Meltzer’s research focuses on sleep in children with chronic illnesses and their parents, the impact of deficient sleep on health outcomes in adolescents with asthma, pediatric sleep and primary care, as well as the development and validation of objective and subjective measures of pediatric sleep. In 2014 Dr. Meltzer was selected as the Education Fellow for the National Sleep Foundation, assisting with the development of programs to educate primary care providers about sleep health. She is also the chair of the Trainee Education and Advisory Committee of the Sleep Research Society. In addition to her research and service, Dr. Meltzer is certified in Behavioral Sleep Medicine by the American Board of Sleep Medicine and enjoys working with children and their families in the Pediatric Behavioral Sleep Clinic at National Jewish Health.

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