Helping Children with Nighttime Anxiety and Fear

From an evolutionary perspective, fears and anxieties surrounding being left alone at night are entirely normal and actually important. This innate fear would have kept our offspring safe, at a time when they would have been most at risk if left alone. While life has changed immeasurably as our species has evolved, this natural fear has not moved with the times. We know our children are safe from predators, warm, dry and comfortable tucked up in their beds at night and so do our children, when you hold a rational conversation with them that is. Their instincts and psyche often says otherwise though. 

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Fear of the dark is perhaps the most common fear in childhood (and a fear that many adults still possess – it’s estimated that around 10% of adults suffer from Nyctophobia – fear of the dark), it’s believed that the fear stems not from imagining monsters lurking in the dark – but from the fear of not being able to see what is around you, i.e: a lack of sensory input, which can leave children (and adults) struggling with the lack of awareness of their environment. Once again, this makes huge sense if you think of the fear in evolutionary terms. If you have a child who is anxious about going to bed, or being left alone overnight, my top recommendation is to always add a nightlight to their bedroom, to be left on all night (do make sure it gives off red light though – see HERE for why). I would also recommend adding plug in red nightlights in any hallways outside of their bedroom too, even if their bedroom door is closed, the thought of a dark hallway lurking the other side of the door can be problematic.

If the cause of your child’s nighttime anxiety seems less obvious, my recommendation would always be to look to the daytimes for the cause. This may seem illogical, after all – if the anxiety only presents, or is much stronger, at night – why would you look to the daytime as the source of anxiety? Quite simply, nights allow children to ponder more on their fears and worries, without the hustle and bustle and busyness of the day and daytime anxiety often manifests the most at night. If you think of a time when you yourself have been incredibly anxious about something, I would wager that the anxiety seems stronger at night, when you get into bed and have nothing else to focus on but the thoughts in your head. If the daytime anxiety is also linked to separation from you in some way (perhaps starting daycare or school, a new sibling arriving, or a divorce or separation where the child is physically separated from you while with their other parent for example), then the impact at night is likely to be stronger, not just because of the above reason – but it is also amplified because a further separation from you is enforced at night, when you sleep in separate rooms. The best way forward here is to focus on the underlying anxiety and ways to help your child to be calmer and more confident in the daytime (if you have a 7 year old or older, this is covered lots in my new BETWEEN book), the happier and more relaxed they feel in the day, the more likely they are to relax at night. 

If your child is scared of being separated from you at night for whatever reason, the simplest and most effective solution here is not to try to encourage the separation through a convoluted series of rewards, praise, leaving them alone for increasing amounts of time, or moving chairs away from their bed and the like, but to embrace their need for you and allow them the connection with you that they so desperately need. If it’s possible space wise, move them into your room temporarily, or move into theirs for a while. Stay with them while they fall asleep and if you do need to leave, reassure them you will be back as soon as they need you. Meeting a child’s need for connection is really the best way to help them to feel confident alone, you don’t make separation anxiety worse by staying with the child, on the contrary, you make them feel more confident when the separation is reduced. If you do want to slowly move towards your child settling more independently at bedtime (or overnight), then trying my pop in, pop out, or bedtime buddy idea in THIS article can help. I would also make sure that bedtime is not too early for the child. Very often parents try to get their children to go to sleep at a time that is not suited to their chronotype – simply, if you’re trying to get your child to sleep before their body is ready, then they are going to struggle to not only get to sleep, but stay asleep, too. If your child is three years or older, then I would aim for sleep onset to be between 8 and 9pm at night (with their bedtime routine starting around 45 minutes earlier). 

Finally, make sure your child has tools to help them with their anxiety, the bedtime buddy idea I mentioned previously helps here, but also look into using audiobooks, sleep relaxation recordings (you can find mine on Amazon, iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify) and relaxing sleep inducing music. Teaching children some simple breathing techniques (e,g: imagine their belly as a big colourful balloon filling up with air as they slowly inhale to a count of 4, and then slowly deflating as they exhale to a count of 8) and some grounding techniques (such as ‘I Spy Senses’ – where they play a game with themselves focusing on one thing they can hear, one thing they can smell, one thing they can touch/feel and one thing they can see) can really help too. It also helps here to have a conversation about anything that may be worrying or scaring them, such as something they have seen on TV, or heard other children talking about and helping them to differentiate between fantasy and reality and knowing what things exist and what things only exist in our minds and imaginations. Above all though, make sure your child knows that they can always talk to you about their fears, safe in the knowledge that you won’t ever belittle or ridicule them. 

Ultimately, the biggest solution to nighttime anxiety is time, fears, nightmares and separation anxiety are all outgrown as children get older (well – aside from the 10% of adults still scared of the dark that is!). Rest safe in the knowledge that, like most other parenting dilemmas, this is something that will pass given time.


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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