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Tame your toddler's night time anxiety

Learn how to help your toddler overcome night time anxiety in this blog by Meaningful Minds Psychologist- Chevonne Powell. As published in Your Baby Magazine.

Night time can be a very stressful time for children and night time fears are common and normal. Children may fear all sorts of things like intruders, monsters, strange sounds and darkness. As your child goes from being a baby to a toddler, you may notice that night time fears and anxiety increase. This is because as your child begins to explore their world they become more aware and begin to realize that things can go wrong. That sometimes toys break or parents disappear for hours.

Toddlers also have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality, so fears may spring out from simple things, such as a bed time story or something they heard on the radio. The most important thing to remember when dealing with your toddlers fears, is that these fears are VERY real to them. Acknowledge this and don’t try and rationalize their fear. Try to put yourself in your toddlers shoes, having this empathy is the first step to calming their night time anxiety.

Why is night time particularly anxiety provoking? Research suggests that our amygdala (the part of our brain that handles emotions) is over active when we are tired. So negative emotions are more likely to rise at night. Why then is it worse for toddlers? Your toddler’s brain is busy developing rapidly. However, their frontal lobes are not mature (as they only start to mature at around 5-6 years old) so they do not have the ability to control emotional impulses, to reason, they don’t have a well-developed sense of time or can distinguish reality. For these reasons, anxiety can quickly increase. Because they don’t have the capabilities, they need their parents to help them calm and soothe.

Here are some easy techniques to calm your toddler’s night time fears.

Consider your child’s daily stress. Toddlers who are generally worried about things like separation, school, friends or parents, are more likely to have fear at night. Reflect on issues of stress for your toddler and see what is unnecessary and can be reduced, or alternately help him/her to cope with day time stress.

Avoid frightening stories in the media. This includes things on the TV, radio or in discussion, particularly programmes such as the news. Passive exposure (if your child is merely present while disturbing material is discussed/ seen), especially before bed time leads to more sleep disturbances and fear.

Provide tools for comfort. The main goal when dealing with anxiety is to help your child to self soothe. We all experience anxiety throughout life, so anxiety cannot be avoided. Instead we need to learn ways of coping with it. Tools for comfort are things such as a night light, leaving the door open or using a transitional object like a teddy or blanket. When using a night light make sure that the light is soft and warm, not a blue or bright light, as this can stop the production of melatonin which will stop your child from falling asleep.

Be creative with the transitional object. Create a story together where the bear has special powers to chase away monsters, or maybe it has powers to make your child invincible. Children love tales, use this as a way to chase away scary thoughts and increase thoughts of confidence and positivity.

Use the power of their imagination. Teach your toddler to use positive powerful thoughts when dealing with worry and fear. This is great technique to combat all forms of stress as they get older. Help your child to think of situations where he felt happy, brave or in control. For example, you might encourage him to think of the time he was at the seaside or when he is playing with his friends. Tell him to capture that memory and think of it when he feels scared. Another way to use your child’s imagination is by creating stories during the day time. Create stories where he is the hero. Start off with a story that doesn’t have any frightening parts. Then slowly add in the fear (monsters that hid under the bed) always including the different ways the hero was able to combat the frightening element. Only intensify the story if your child shows confidence in going further. By doing this you gradually desensitize your child to the fear provoking stimulus.

Create a fortress of safety. Make your toddlers room a place of safety. Together with your toddler create various additions to the room that will help him feel more in control. Make his room as open, cozy and comfortable as possible. Make a sign for the door (or closet door) that says, “ NO monsters allowed in Lillies room!” Put the nightlight in a place that illuminates the room. You could even put fun pictures on the wall or glow in the dark stickers on the ceiling to make the room a fun space at night.

Name it to tame it. Toddlers do not yet have the vocabulary to express how they feel or what is happening in their minds. With their active imagination but limited verbal expression it can become quite confusing for them. Help your toddler to express emotions by talking about them. Keep it simple, remember that your toddler has a limited attention span. If your little one wakes up in the night ask them if they feel scared or worried. Help them name the emotion to tame it. A fun method is to give the bad feeling a name, like Steve. Whenever your toddler feels scared he can tell Steve to go away!

Establish a routine. A routine creates predictability, and predictability makes a child feel safe and secure. Establish a bedtime routine and stick to it. This should include bath time, story time and quiet time for love and cuddling before lights out. Try to keep this time peaceful. Once the routine is established, your child’s brain will begin preparing itself for sleep from bath time! This will prevent too much time awake in bed which can create fears.

Seek help. If your child continues to be fearful at night, even after trying all these methods rather seek advice from a professional psychologist. At times night time anxiety can be a symptom of other problems that may need to be investigated.

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