Tips For Tots: Calming Night Time Fears

By Anne A. McGrady

Many children suffer from nocturnal fears and sadly many parents are unaware of this concern until the situation becomes very evident and awakes the whole household. 

As one compares Western societies verses Non-Western societies, the research shows in Western societies, children are sleeping solitary and many parents are unaware of the fears as in Non-Western societies, young children sleep in the same room even the same bed as their parents. As these children grow older, they are moved from their parents’ room to rooms of their siblings. 

Fears at night seem to be very common and normal for preschoolers and even older children.  Many children still struggle at ages 2-5 years old to make the distinction of the imaginary from real life. 

As parents, we need to NOT over react to the situation or concern and NOT to make fun of your child.  It is important to help your child deal with the fear in ways that young children can understand and make some sense out of the fear. 

Immediately respond to your child who is experiencing night fears in the following way:

• Children need coping skills to deal with nighttime fears – they need a person/helper who is sensitive to the child’s developmental stage and individual temperament (children lack coping tools to work things out by themselves).

• They need someone to provide immediate reassurance, provide a sense of security and to teach them how to overcome their nighttime fears.

• Children need responsive, rational parenting.

• Turn on the lights and use a nightlight for the child.

• Comfort your child by repeating – saying I’m here now and so is your Dad.

• Always look in your child’s eyes and give your full attention and listen clearly to what she/he has to say.

• Always respond to fears in a soothing, calm manner, be patient & confident behavior – explain you understand he/she is scared and everyone gets scared sometimes.

• Offer to your child a soothing comfy stuffed animal or doll to keep your child company when the child returns to his/her room.

• Prove that the child’s fear is unfounded, build confidence.

• Daily routine stress levels may cause children to fear sleeping alone.

• Use physical affection.

It is important to remember the following:

• Always know that feelings of being scared are very real to a young child.

Assure the child that you know they are really scared, the child then realizes that you understand.

• If your child is not comfortable talking about a scary dream, you may be able to offer ideas which may help you conquer this “scary” time.  Use comfortable words and try helping him relax through reassuring touch.

• Always reach your child at his level of understanding.

• Encourage your child to choose a “lovey” that brings comfort, security and love.  If you do not own one – go shopping for a lovey.

• Try family discussions, role playing and books to hope understand nighttime fears.

• Compromise occasionally so all can get some sleep.  When young children cannot be comforted and want to come to the parents bedroom, suggest that sleeping bags can be used on the floor in your room.

• If problems recur often or are especially frightening, consult your pediatrician.

• Night terrors or nightmares occur in one out of every four children ages three to eight years.  They can be generally short lived.  Night terrors occurs within an hour of falling asleep – child wakes suddenly from a deep sleep in a state of panic.  Can last five to thirty minutes, can get back to sleep and child has no recollection next day….go away and not an indication of any emotional problems.  Nightmares occur in early morning hours.  Children can recall details of scary dreams and may have trouble go8ing back to sleep.  Nightmares may center on a problem or life event troubling the child.

Always keep lines of communication open between you and your child, acknowledge your child’s fears and offer comfort, be positive and loving.


Nighttime Fears in Children:  A Guide for the Science-Minded

Parent, 2008, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.

Understanding Children’s Fears, Iowa State Univ. 2003.