Nighttime fears in children: A practical guide for the science-minded

© 2008 – 2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Nighttime fears are very common, and may include fears of intruders, monsters, unexplained sounds, and darkness. In this article, I review

  • The evolutionary basis for children’s fears
  • Why kids may be biologically unprepared to cope by themselves, and
  • How you can help your child overcome her fears and anxieties

If your child suffers from frightening dreams or nighttime screaming episodes, you might also want to check out this article on nightmares and night terrors.

Nighttime fears in evolutionary and cross-cultural perspective

If you’re reading this because your child suffers from nocturnal fears, you’re fortunate in at least one respect: You know about it.

In a study of Dutch children, over 73% of kids aged 4-12 years said they experienced fear at night (Muris et al 2001). Another study of Australian children reported that over 64% of kids between 8 and 16 admitted to nighttime anxieties or fears (Gordon et al 2007). In both cases, many parents were unaware of their children’s problems.

Why are nighttime fears so common? And why are some parents out of touch? Maybe the answer is related to solitary sleep — the cultural practice of leaving children to fall asleep in their own, private bedrooms. Although the practice is unusual cross-culturally, it’s common in Western countries (including the Netherlands and Australia, where these studies took place). And it’s easy to see how parents might miss signs of nighttime anxiety if their kids are sleeping in a separate space.

It’s also easy to understand how sleeping alone could trigger separation anxiety — a panic response arising from a primitive part of brain that also processes information about physical pain (Panskepp 2000). And it makes sense that kids might find nocturnal separation to be especially distressing.

For the vast majority of human history, our ancestors shared sleeping spaces with their children. Leaving kids to sleep alone would have put them at risk for predation, and children who found themselves in this situation would have good reason for worry. Fear of separation would have been adaptive. It would have inspired kids to stay close and safe.

In many modern, industrialized, affluent countries, kids can sleep alone without jeopardizing their personal safety. Yet the tendency to be fearful remains. Children’s brains monitor the environment for potential threats, and they learn from social cues (Coss and Blozis 2021; Percy et al 2016; Muris and Field 2010).

As I explain elsewhere, kids can acquire a new fear by observing the frightening experiences of other individuals — including individuals depicted on television. They can also become fearful in response to our direct warnings, as when we advise them of a threat (e.g., “Watch out, there are nasty rats in the basement”) or deliberately frighten or tease them with fanciful tales (e.g., “Better stay in bed or the monsters will get you!”).

Does this mean kids will experience less fear if they sleep with others?

In a study tracking over 900 Quebecois children from the age of two, Valérie Simard and her colleagues found that toddlers who slept in their mothers’ beds were less likely to suffer from nightmares in later years (Simard et al 2008). And this could be construed as evidence that cosleeping is protective against certain types of fearful, nighttime experiences.

But it’s a complicated question. What if parents try to implement solitary sleep, and it fails because a child complains of nighttime fears or anxieties? In societies where solitary sleep is considered the ideal, families often engage in what researchers call “reactive co-sleeping” — with caregivers accomodating a frightened child’s requests to crawl into bed (El Rafihi-Ferreira et al 2019).

Does this accomodation make a child feel less fearful in the moment? Usually, yes. But it’s unclear if kids learn to overcome their nighttime fears in the longterm.

And one thing seems clear: Whether your child sleeps alone or with family members, nighttime fears and anxieties should be taken seriously.

Although the kids in the Australian study were selected from the general population (as opposed to a psychiatric practice or sleep clinic), researchers discovered that about 10% of children complaining of nighttime fears fit the criteria for an anxiety disorder. And the study by Simard and colleagues reported strong links between anxiety and bad dreams. Seventeen-month-old kids who were rated by their mothers as anxious, difficult, or emotionally disturbed were more likely than other children to have bad dreams at 29 months (Simard et al 2008).

The researchers speculate that some children—those who are more inhibited or anxious—at are greater risk for chronic nightmares and other psychological problems. If parents treat their children’s fears at an early age, they might help their children avoid emotional problems later in life.

Addressing your child’s nighttime fears may also help her get more sleep. Kids suffering from nighttime fears may suffer from bedtime problems and frequent night wakings. 

Finally, we should keep in mind that everybody tends to overreact to emotional stimuli at the end of the day. Experiments suggest that the amygdala — a brain region that processes emotional events — becomes overactive when you are tired (Yoo et al 2007; Maski and Kothar 2013). Negative emotions may come naturally to us at night.

Why kids need help coping with nighttime fears

Adults find it difficult to cope with fear and anxiety. When older adults go to sleep feeling lonely, threatened, sad, or out-of-control, they experience elevated levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) the next day (Adam et al 2006).

If this is the adult experience, what must it be like for a child who lacks the mature coping skills of an adult? To deal successfully with nighttime fears and separation anxiety, a child needs

  • A well-developed sense of time (“when will I see Mommy again?”)
  • The ability to control emotional impulses
  • The ability to distinguish appearances from reality
  • The ability to reason consciously and trust rational conclusions over misleading sensory information (“that shadowy bump on the floor might look like a monster, but I know it’s really a pile of clothes”)

Most kids don’t develop these capacities until they are 5-6 years old—not coincidentally the age when the frontal lobes start to mature (Eliot 2000). The brain’s frontal lobes permit us to reason, problem-solve, and plan ahead. They also help us decide what to do with the raw emotions we feel.

The implications seem clear. When frightened toddlers and preschoolers are left to fend for themselves, they don’t know how to calm themselves down. And even after kids develop the ability to reason about their emotions, they can’t be expected to invent their own effective fear-management therapies.

Moreover, some kids are intrinsically more timid than others. These kids may be at a physiological disadvantage when it comes to confronting their own fears.

Temperamentally-inhibited children tend to have higher resting heart rates and higher levels of stress hormones. They show greater brain activity in the right frontal lobe—where fears and anxieties are processed (Eliot 2000).

And animal studies suggest that the amygdala—the brain structure that tells us when we should be afraid—is more sensitive, or “trigger-happy,” in timid children (Fox et al 2005; Eliot 2000). These kids can learn to be less fearful. But to do it, they need the sensitive, gentle encouragement of their parents.

What’s the bottom line?

Kids need help coping with nighttime fears, and they need a helper who is sensitive to their developmental stage and individual temperament.

They need someone to reassure them, to provide them with a sense of security, and to teach them how to overcome their nighttime fears.

In short, they need responsive, rational parenting.

Helping children cope with nighttime fears: A checklist

Always question parenting advice that encourages parents to leave distressed children alone at night.

As noted above, kids lack the coping tools to work things out by themselves. And even advocates of “cry-it-out” strategies of sleep training warn that such approaches are inappropriate for young babies and children who are especially fearful or anxious (France and Blampied 1999; Owens et al 1999).

Talk to kids about the difference between fantasy and reality, and prove to them that there is no monster in the closet.

As noted above, children who have trouble distinguishing fantasy and reality may be at higher risk for nighttime fears (Zisenwine et al 2012).

Consider sources of daily stress.

Kids who suffer from daytime anxieties—about school, separation from parents, or other concerns—are more likely to fear the dark and fear sleeping alone (Gregory and Eley 2005). You may be able to reduce your child’s nighttime fears by helping him cope with daytime stress.

Review your child’s sleep requirements and sleep schedule.

Sometimes parents overestimate how much sleep their children need. As a result, they send their kids to bed long before kids can fall asleep. Kids left to stew in the dark have more time to dwell on nighttime fears (Ferber 1995).

For help gauging your child’s sleep requirements, see this Parenting Science guide.

Avoid frightening television, stories, and imagery — especially before bedtime.

This includes passive exposure, which occurs when your child is present while you watch potentially disturbing material on TV. One study reported that 5-6 year olds exposed to adult TV programs—including the evening news—slept less overall and experienced more sleep disturbances (Paavonen et al 2006).

Fight fear with the power of touch.

 Physical affection switches off separation anxiety (Panskepp 2006).

Offer your child the comfort of a soft toy animal or or doll.

There is experimental evidence that this old standby really helps: In a study that randomly assigned fearful children to receive a toy “huggy puppy,” kids exhibited fewer nighttime fears and sleep problems than did children in a control group. The effect was observed whether the toy  was presented as a protector or as a creature needing protection (Kushnir and Sadeh 2012).

Try to be patient.

If your child’s nighttime fears are depriving you of sleep, it’s natural to feel resentment. But it’s important not to direct anger or irritation at your child. If your child feels rejected, this will only intensify his separation anxiety and make things worse.

Respond promptly to nightmares.

Assure your child that the nightmare wasn’t real, and explain that everybody has nightmares sometimes. The more quickly you break the spell of a frightening dream, the more quickly your child can get back to sleep.

For more information about nightmares — and their dopplegangers, sleep terrors, see this Parenting Science guide.

Provide your child with a night light.

As you and your child works through her nighttime fears, you can switch to progressively dimmer lights (Glaze 2004). But word to the wise: Find a nightlight that gives off dim light, and light with a soft, warm hue.

Studies indicate that both bright light and blue light inhibit the production of melatonin in the brain, and thus may prevent your child from feeling drowsy at bedtime. Read more about it in this Parenting Science article.

Be a model of calm, confident behavior

When your child comes to you in a fearful state, be warm, sensitive and responsive. Tell him you understand that he is scared, and that everybody gets scared sometimes. But don’t let sympathy turn into overprotectiveness. ]

Many animals—ranging from birds to monkeys—are sensitive to social cues about fear (Zentall and Galef 1988). They pick up fears by watching others model them. Kids are no exception. If your child believes you are worried or anxious, he may become more fearful.

Show your child how to relax

For instance, as you soothe a crying child, you can show her breathing exercises.

In a study aimed at reducing anxiety in young children scheduled for a medical procedure, researchers taught kids how to take slow, deep breaths by having them exhale into party blowers (Jay et al 1987). These breathing exercises appeared to reduce distress in 40% of the kids.

Counteract frightening thoughts with images of happiness, safety, and bravery.

When your child is fearful, help him think of situations that make him feel happy and in control. For instance, you might encourage him to imagine he is playing with a favorite pet. You might also have him practice telling themselves that he is brave. This technique was used in the study mentioned above (Jay et al 1987).

Teach coping skills through role playing

Many kids overcome their fear of medical check-ups by playing doctor. You can apply this approach to nighttime fears as well.

During the daytime, talk about your child’s fears and discuss how she can counteract them. Help your child practice the tactics mentioned above—thinking happy thoughts, telling oneself that one is brave, rehearsing relaxing techniques, and transforming frightening imaginary creatures into something silly and non-threatening. Then try a little role playing (Jay et al 1987).

If you have another adult or older child to help, the two of you can act out the parts of frightened child and helpful parent. The parent shows the child how to counter her nighttime fears, and the child tries each technique out. After this demonstration, have the child play the part of the comforting adult. You—or a favorite toy—can take the part of the fearful child.

During the daytime, create stories with your child in which the protagonist (your child’s favorite fictional character or hero) learns to overcome nighttime fears.

This technique—called story desensitization—is designed to make children less fearful by having them confront their fears in small steps (King et al 2001).

Start by telling a story that lacks any frightening elements. Then introduce something that is just a little bit scary.

For instance, if your child is afraid of spiders, you might add a very small, non-threatening spider to the story (one that keeps its distance from the hero). The hero responds by successfully practicing the fear management techniques mentioned above.

If this story doesn’t distress your child, you can intensify the frightening element in the next story—perhaps by making the spider come closer. In this way, you may gradually desensitize your child’s fears.

If your child suffers from severe nighttime fears, consult with a doctor or licensed therapist.

Research suggests that kids with problems at night often suffer from a variety of problems during the day, including anxiety, impulsivity, and abnormal attentional control (Kushnir et al 2014). A specialist can recommend a program of help tailored to the individualized needs of your child.

References: Coping with nighttime fears

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