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Ask Dr. Burgess

Sleep time troubles.

Dear Dr. Burgess,

Our son is four and has started having trouble going to sleep in his own room. He has never had trouble before but now when it is time for us to leave the room, he gets very clingy and upset. Why is this happening so suddenly and what can we do to help him settle in at night knowing that he is safe?

Thank you for any help you can give us.
Tired Parents


Dear Tired Parents,

This is a common development and, while it can feel like a setback, is typically a sign of important cognitive growth. As young children experience more of the world, they develop more knowledge. This includes images and ideas that might be scary. And, as children develop more knowledge, they experience corresponding advancements in intellectual capacity—including the ability to imagine potential dangers in the dark. So, the good news is some amount of this behavior is to be expected and can be a sign of cognitive growth. The bad news is that this phase can be stressful for children, disruptive for families, and tricky to fix without the right set of strategies.

Here is a set of easy-to-use strategies for softening your child’s fear at bedtime:

Add soft light
Using a nightlight or having a low lamp in your child’s room can create a comfortable environment for a frightened child.

Cover windows and close closet doors
Looking out at the dark night, or across the room at a shadowy closet, is a recipe for young imaginations run wild.

Remove unwanted items
If your child expresses fear at a toy, hamper, or the like, don’t just put it in the closet, remove it from the space altogether.

Run a fan or other source of white noise
A little bit of neutral, repetitive noise gives a child something soothing to focus on rather than silence and can block noises like creaking stairs, the wind blowing through trees, and rumble of distant thunder.

Maintain a soothing nighttime routine
Establish a bedtime routine that gets slower, quieter, and less brightly lit as the night progresses.

Monitor the media
Limit your child’s exposure to scary media during the day and right before going to bed. Something that didn’t seem scary during daylight, or while others with you, may suddenly seem terrifying while alone in the dark.

Check, check, and re-check
If you have taken care of the sleeping environment and routines by addressing the list above and your child is still having difficulty, try giving your child a simple choice for how much time should pass before you come back to check on him. For example, when your stories are read, songs sung, and it is time to leave the room, ask your child if he would rather you check on him in one minute or three minutes. He will choose one minute and wait tensely for your return. Position yourself just outside the doorway (out of sight but so he doesn’t hear your footsteps heading away from him) and make sure you re-enter the room promptly after a minute has passed.

Repeat this offer one or two times and as he begins to expect your speedy return, he will forget to be tense and start waiting in a relaxed state. Next, offer a choice of returning in two or five minutes. He will choose two minutes. Don’t go far and return promptly again. Try that once or twice and then, if necessary, offer the next return-time choice of three versus five minutes. Typically, children fall asleep at the two-or-three-minute stage, but it can take until five for tiredness to take over. Obviously, this takes a little time, but typically less time than it would take to manage this transition through fearful tears. What’s more, this will be time well spent in which your child is learning to relax and trust that you are nearby at bedtime.

Offer an incentive
If all else fails, practice all the above and add an incentive for doing a good job of going to bed without fussing. (I know, someone in the family will say you are bribing him.) Don’t worry about family feedback. Researchers have found that incentives work and are better at shaping behaviors than punishments or unsuccessful bedtime sessions. Make the reward something small that would be appealing to your child. This final strategy can give your child a reason to push through the fear in order to fall asleep and can even help if he repeatedly wakes in the middle of the night and comes to your room. In this later case, offer the incentive at bedtime and mention that if your son wakes during the night he should roll over and hug a pillow and go back to sleep so that he can get his reward the next day. When adults wake in the middle of the night, they typically get up to use the restroom or they roll over, snuggle and go back to sleep. Like so many things, managing your sleep takes instruction and practice.

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