Child Caring

Conquering night-time fears

My son is 3.5 and for the past 10 weeks he wakes up at least once, sometimes up to four times a night. He says he can't sleep or he needs to be tucked in etc. However, I get the sense he is scared. At a separate time, I asked if he knew why he woke up and called out to mom and dad. He said he heard noises and was scared. We talked about the fact that our heat does click on and off. But he says I hear things under my bed, etc. So I know he must be scared. I am empathetic to my little boy who is sacred. But having us all wake up 1-4 times a night is making us all crazy! Not to mention it is not healthy for my son to be sleep deprived. He does have a night light. I am not sure what else I can do to help us all stay asleep!

From: Andover Mom, Andover, MA

Continue Reading Below

Hi Andover Mom,

I'm sure you're right, that he's frightened. It's possible the heat clicking could set him off; it's also possible that something in his life happened 10 weeks ago that worried/frightened him. You'll probably never know what it was and it's not worth trying to figure it out. Kids this age are filled with magical thinking, where they make illogical connections that can scare them, and they also have realistic fears, given their perspective and cognition. For instance, a child who wasn't afraid of a neighborhood dog suddenly might be because he's come to a new level of cognition where he's able to think, "Whoa, this dog is bigger than me and look at those teeth. He could hurt me!" At any rate, nighttime fears are very common.

Two things tend to make fears disappear: growing out of the particular developmental stage, and feeling safe. To that end, here are some coping skills:

* Never pooh-pooh his fears. Don't say "There's nothing to be afraid of," or "You can be a brave boy, don't be silly!" Instead, take his fears seriously. Not only are they real to him, but that also reassures him that he can trust you to help him with his problems. Ask him where he thinks something might be hiding (what the "it" is doesn't matter): under the bed, behind the curtains, in the closet. Check and double check all those spots. When my son was this age, we had Monster Spray (a spray bottle I used for ironing that I put a label on) and I sprayed all these hiding spots to "scare the bad things away." It worked wonders. Security objects can help, too, like a special stuffed animal who eats bad dreams. Back in the day, there was something called Baka Baku, a cross between a lion and an elephant, who slept on my son's pillow (and my niece's!) for years. I haven't been able to find it but if someone knows about it: holler!

* Establish reasons with him for when he can wake you up: always if he feels sick. But also ask him about the levels of scariness he can handle on his own. Can he handle being scared from his toes to his ankles? What about from his toes to his knees? But maybe he needs to call for you when he's scared from his toes to his belly button, or his his neck. It doesn't matter how you divvy this up -- he'll get the idea that there are degrees of scared and he can handle some of it by himself. This will take time to get established, but it usually works. So for instance, the first night once you've established this and he calls out to you, ask him, "Where are you scared to? Your ankles or your knees?"

* Create a sleeping place for him on the floor in your bedroom with a blanket and a pillow. This is for when he's frightened from, say, his toes to his belly button. The rule is he can sleep there but without waking you. (He only wakes you when he's frightened all the way to his neck.) The downside, of course, is that this pallet may become a habit but, considering how often you're awakened now, that may be a problem you're willing to deal with later.

* What does he watch on videos etc? Screen these to make sure there aren't scary images. I thought my son loved "101 Dalmatians" -- he would ask to watch it -- until he told me in the middle of one night that he had to hide his eyes when Cruella came on. And, oh yeah, that's who might be under the bed. So why did he ask to watch it? Probably his way of trying to conquer the fear but clue enough to me that the video was way age-inappropriate for him. I conveniently "lost" it.