Tips to Decrease Bedtime Anxiety
Ever have a child that developed sleep problems from being anxious at bedtime? It’s frustrating, I know. Even worse is that anything you do or say doesn’t seem to help calm the child’s fears. I went through it with my own child. He’d get all worked up at bedtime because that was when he was alone with all of his thoughts and worries. His imagination went wild!
My husband and I would take turns going upstairs to let him know everything was all right, but that never seemed to do the trick. He’d just be calling out for us again a few minutes later, and one of us would have to march right back up for the millionth time that night. Just let me watch my Grey’s Anatomy in peace already!
We all have some forms of anxiety and worries. It’s natural! As adults, experience has taught us the skills we need to deal with our fears. However, children are still trying to make sense of this big scary world.
Anything that emotionally arouses a child is going to make their fears worse. This just makes them more anxious, and the vicious cycle continues. Children also tend to have different fears at different stages of development. Young kids are often afraid of monsters and other imaginary creatures. Older kids are more likely to fear more real dangers, like being hurt, burglars or a natural disaster (Mindell, National Sleep Foundation, 2010).
Luckily, there are things you can do to decrease anxiety at bedtime.
First off, don’t panic. Mild anxiety at a young age is NORMAL. It’s not likely going to become a life long problem. Keep in mind they’re just kids. Every day they’re exposed to things that are scary to them. They hear things on the playground from older kids, see things on TV, or read things in books. While these may all seem fairly harmless, kids can misinterpret them and find them scary. I remember one day turning on the My Little Ponies cartoon for my three year old and it scared the daylights out of her! Yikes, sorry little munchkin!
As a sleep consultant, I often get calls from parents because their child’s healthy sleep habits have turned into bedtime battles with fear. Here are some tips to help decrease anxiety at bedtime:
1. Normalize their fears
Fears are normal, not silly. Help your child understand this. Just because they think something is true, doesn’t mean it is.
2. Empower them with skills
- Calm breathing – slow breaths help anxiety. Explain this to your child and get them to breathe slowly on their own. If they need some help, pretend to blow bubbles! You need slow deep breaths to blow a bubble.
- Distraction – Give your child something else to focus on, like looking at some books or singing quietly to themselves.
- Visualization – Help your child imagine doing something fun.
- Positive self talk – Come up with positive affirmations with your child to help fight their anxiety i.e. “I can do it” and “I am strong.”
- Create a worry box – Write your child’s worries down for them on paper and put them in a worry box (shoe box or decorative box). Then tie up the worry box and put it away in another room/closet. Out of sight, out of mind. This can help children mentally let go of their worry.
3. Be firm with bedtime routines
Children need routine and structure to help them feel secure. A home full of chaos or little/no predictability will only lead to more anxiety.
4. Provide physical support
Tell your child you will stay with them for 5 minutes while they try to sleep. When the 5 minutes are up, say you’ll check on them in 15 minutes, to help reassure them they’re not alone. Do not start sleeping with them as this will just create more problems.
5. Praise, praise, praise
In the morning, give them praise for doing so well. Even if they struggled, let them know you’re proud of them for trying so hard. Sticker reward charts work great too. If they get 5 stickers for working hard on their fears, you all can have a movie night (or whatever you feel is a good reward)!
Remember, anxieties and fears will come and go throughout the years. The skills you teach your child to decrease anxiety at bedtime now will get adapted as they go through childhood, teen age years and adulthood—skills that will last a lifetime.
Here’s to sleeping well!