Why Are Kids Afraid at Bedtime? 3 Reasons Behind Nighttime Fears.

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
July 12, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

It’s time for bed, and your child starts crying. They look up at you with tear-filled eyes and tell you they’re afraid. They’re afraid of the monsters under their bed, being away from you, or a scary scene they saw in a movie – nighttime fears can be tricky to know how to respond to.

In this post, we’ll explore three reasons why your child is afraid to go to bed, and some practical ways to support your little one so they can cope with these fears. 

Reason 1: Your Child Has a Growing Imagination

When kids are struggling to fall asleep, it can help to get curious about their stage of development. If they are between the ages of 2 – 3 and express fears at bedtime, their imagination could be the source of nighttime fears. When the lights are turned off, their imagination can turn shadows into monsters and darkness into danger.

If you have a child with nighttime fears, you may have peaked under their bed or used a healthy dose of “monster spray” for reassurance. It makes sense that parents want to console their kids, but strategies like this don’t offer a long-term solution to nighttime fears because they don’t get to the root of the fear – which explains why some school-aged kids continue to have nighttime fears. 

At the root of most night time fears is the need for safety and security. If we check under their bed or spray away the monsters, we’re telling our child that those fears could be real. 

We are indicating that safety is a byproduct of these practices; checking under the bed and using monster spray is what’s keeping your child safe. This quick-fix approach prevents us from digging deeper and getting curious about their fears. 

Reason 2: Your Child is Adjusting to Stressful Life Changes

When your child is fearful at night, consider if there have been any significant changes in their life. There are a number of big changes and transitions that can contribute to bedtime fears. 

In general, kids of all ages find changes or transitions difficult. Such as adding a new sibling to the family, moving to a new house, switching to a new school, parent travelling, separation or divorce, the loss of a loved one, or an illness in the family. 

Here are some common stressful life changes for younger kids (2-4):

  • Weaning off night feedings. 
  • Transition from co-sleeping to independent sleeping.
  • Transitioning from a crib to a bed. 

Here are some common stressful life changes for older kids (5-12):

  • Transitioning from being babysat, to babysitting. 
  • Experiencing physical, and hormonal changes in their bodies. 
  • Transitioning from elementary school to middle school. 

Getting curious about any big changes in your child’s life can put bedtime battles into perspective. Life transitions can be stressful for kids, so it makes sense that going to bed during these times is challenging. 

When kids are faced with big changes, we want to find tiny moments to establish predictability. One practical way you can support your child is to offer a visual bedtime schedule so you can maintain consistency in the bedtime routine and your little one can anticipate the next step.

Use our FREE checklist to help identify why your child struggles with sleep!

Reason 3: Your Child Has Seen Something Unsettling 

Children, especially sensitive little ones, have super spongy brains. This means their brain slowly absorbs everything they’ve seen and heard all day long. Finally, when it’s time to sleep, they start to think about all of the things they’ve been absorbing all day long. 

For example, as a highly sensitive child, I often struggled to fall asleep after movie night. I’d lie awake and worry that the villains from the Disney movies were going to kidnap me in my sleep.

If there was a fire, tornado, or storm in the movie, I’d be too scared to sleep for fear of my own safety. If a character in the movie got sick or injured, I would struggle to sleep because I was worried that someone I loved was going to get hurt. 

Because I didn’t have the words to communicate these fears to my parents, I would lie awake for hours, cry myself to sleep or come out of my room multiple times in the night to make sure everything was okay. 

Even when caregivers censor the media their children consume, kids can be exposed to unsettling images or experiences. This is why it’s important to consider your child’s fears when they’re struggling with sleep. 

Your child might appear upset, angry, and anxious before bed; this can be a sign that something uncomfy is stuck with them and they need help to sort it out and regulate their emotions in order to fall asleep. They need us to get curious with them, so their fears can be addressed, and their worries can be processed. 

Getting curious with toddlers and preschoolers about their worries might sound like:

“I can see you’re having a hard time right now. I wonder if you saw something today that was uncomfy for you.” 
“I noticed you’ve been sad since I came to pick you up from preschool. Did you see something that made you feel sad?”
“Did anything feel tricky today?”

With big kids, getting curious can sound like: 

“You can tell me if you heard or saw something uncomfy on the bus. You won’t get in trouble for telling me.”
“You’re having a really hard time going to sleep. I wonder if there was anything that happened at the birthday party today that you want to talk about?”
“I noticed you covered your face during the movie. Is there anything you wanted to ask me before you go to bed?”

Incorporating these questions into the bedtime routine can help you and your child unpack something unsettling so it doesn’t interfere with their sleep. 

Keep in mind that your child may also feel fearful to describe what they saw or repeat what they heard if they suspect they’re going to get in trouble. If you suspect this may be the case, it can help to ask questions in a neutral way, to try and understand their fears and help them feel safe enough to share.

Putting Bedtime Battles into Perspective

When we get curious about nighttime fears, it can put a child’s bedtime battles into perspective. It can shift us from thinking your child is giving you a hard time to seeing that your child is having a hard time.

If your child is having a hard time at night and expressing some of the nighttime fears covered in this blog, grab our Solving Bedtime Battles course to get more support! This course is your guide to better sleep. I dive into the tools I’ve been teaching my clients for years to help them sleep better in a way that keeps them connected with you! I packed it with easy-to-digest lessons, practical bedtime tools, visual bedtime schedules, and soooo much more!

Grab the course today!

Key Takeaways

  1. A child’s growing imagination can often make a child scared at bedtime.
  2. Quick-fix strategies, like checking under the bed or using “monster spray,” don’t offer a long-term solution since they don’t address the root of the fear.
  3. Stressful life changes such as a new sibling, new home, or new school can cause bedtime fears.
  4. Create predictable routines, such as a visual bedtime schedule, so that children can anticipate the next step in their routine.
  5. Children absorb everything they see and hear. At bedtime, they may reflect on unsettling parts of their day.
  6. If a child is upset or anxious before bed, it could be a sign they are processing something uncomfortable. Try asking them about their experience to understand potential fears.
  7. Be patient with a child who might feel afraid to talk about what’s bothering them, and create a safe space for them to open up.

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.