Every so often, normally when you’ve settled in to a lovely flowing routine that works well with your lifestyle, your child can throw you a real curve ball. Just to keep you on your toes. When these curve-balls involve the ever precious sleep – things can get particularly difficult. Sleep regressions come and go, as we know. We ride them out, but what if your bedtime battle is fear based? What do you do when your child is scared to go to sleep? This is when the situation can become very tricky as you rattle your brain trying to figure out what brought this on and how to fix it.
This exact situation happened to me not so long ago. I was coasting along, mid pandemic, with two year old twins who I’d somehow managed to get into a solid bedtime routine where they chatted away happily before nodding off unaided. Feeling particularly smug that my hard work with gentle sleep training had paid off, one half off the twins suddenly threw a huge spanner in the works.
After what I later guessed must have been a nightmare after she woke frightened in the middle of the night, needing my comfort. My little sleeping angel went from enjoying her bed and routine, to screaming bloody murder if I dared take her in her bedroom. Let alone her bed. For two months, maybe longer (it’s all a blur, I was very sleep deprived!) I became a walking zombie, with absolutely no time to myself.
Myself and my toddler grew more and more sleep deprived by the day. She refused to sleep anywhere other than on me, my husband was abandoned to the sofa and she spent every night in my bed. Whilst co-sleeping may work for some, it did not work for us. With twins it helps hugely to keep them on the same schedule so this was particularly difficult, she did not sleep well in my bed. She nodded off too late, and woke too early. She also refused a nap. I would eventually manage to take her in her bedroom for a night routine with her sister, but she still screamed like a child possessed if I dared to lay her in the bed. This was rather awkward once her sister had drifted off, and her big brother tried to get his own sleep just across the hall.
Enough was enough!
A loss at what to do, both of us exhausted, I resolved to roll my sleeves up and sort out this bedtime phobia once and for all. I read everything I could get my hands on and am pleased to say she’s now sleeping happily and peacefully again, in a bed next to her sister. Once again her energy is back and bedtime, whilst always fraught with the general delaying tactics, has become a simple and stress free event again. Hooray!
If you are finding yourself in the midst of a similar problem, when your child is scared to go to sleep, I hope the following tips, hacks and ideas I’m about to go into prove helpful. These were ideas and and tweaks that gradually improved things for us, I hope they work for you too.
Try to identify the issue
Children are complex little things, but have you tried sitting down with your child in a quiet moment during the day and simply asking them? “What’s making it hard for you to go to sleep at night? How can I help? ” When your child is scared to go to bed, there’s probably a very logical reason behind it. Was it a dream? Is there a toy in the bedroom that casts a creepy shadow once the light is out? You might be surprised at what you find out. When I had this conversation with my toddler it turns out she had taken a dislike to the dark, so I started to research some good nights that she might find fun and comforting. It was a real game changer when it arrived, and she often fell asleep with it in her bed and asked to have it if she woke during the night.
Make the bedroom a fun place!
How is your child’s bedroom set out? Is it cluttered? Do they only go there to sleep? To help my toddler get over her fear we started to introduce daily play time in her bedroom. It took a week for her to actually go into her cot to play a game of “5 monkeys jumping on the bed”, and she was very cautious initially. However I persevered and after a week or so she started to enjoy a daily play session up there.
I made sure I kept the room bright and airy as I’d realised I had been keeping our black out blinds up all the time as they were so tricky to get right. We played silly games, read books and did puzzles. I think this was a key part in helping her through her fear. If your child is scared to go to sleep at night, try introducing some bedroom play in the day to help them through this tricky stage.
Try hanging some pictures
As my toddler was so attached to me during the night, I printed off some fun photos of us and other close family member’s and stuck them up by her bed. I realsied the walls were quite bare so this helped lighten up the room and could provide comfort if I wasn’t there. We also painted and coloured some pictures during the day and made an event of going upstairs afterwards and picking places to hang them in the bedroom.
Set the room up for calm sleep
Once you’ve started the above steps, start to think about the atmosphere of the room at bedtime. You could try introducing some fairy lights at story time, calming music or even popping an electric oil diffuser in there with some child safe calming oils such as lavender. This can help them associate a certain smell with going to sleep and help them unwind after an active day. De-clutter any toys you don’t need in the room, keep it simply with puzzles, books and their favorite cuddly toys in a special box.
The Moshi sleep app is great, we use it every day. It’s packed with calming meditations, music and stories for quiet time and bedtime.
Rethink nap time
Is your child s nap interfering with bedtime? Is it too long, too short or simply been cut out before they are ready? Over-tiredness can sometimes have the different effect of what you are hoping – and make your child too fraught to drift off at night time. Could you make the nap earlier in the day? Or cut it a little shorter? If you have a nap fighter that you know still desperately needs one, could you incorporate a buggy walk or car drive during the day to help them nod off? Try and look at the routine with fresh eyes and adapt as you need.
Fill up the love cup!
When your child is scared to go to sleep, and worried or frightened when you leave the room – have they had enough you time during the day? Be honest, it’s so easy to get caught up in the endless to do lists and work commitments we sometimes forget to get down on their level and play. So try and focus as much one on one time throughout the day as your schedule allows. Fill up their love cup so to speak, with lots of hugs / kisses and connection time. Otherwise when it’s time for you to leave the bedroom at bedtime, they may feel like their not quite ready to let you go for the day.
Prep them ahead of time
Once you’ve gone through the steps above, sit down in the day with your child and explain to them that it’s important for them to get a good nights sleep in their own bed, and that you need one in yours. You will be met with a bit of resistance but gently plant the seed of what will soon start to happen at bedtime. Explain your routine “bath, milk, stories, cuddles etc” then that need to go into their bed.
Try getting your child to put their favourite toys to bed before it’s their turn. This can help them feel more in control, and provide comfort. If things get noisy a simply “ssshhhh teddies trying to sleep” can be helpful!
Decide which method works for you
I’m not here to tell you which sleep “training” method to do for your own child, as I’m not a sleep expert. In fact if the situation becomes more than you can handle alone, investing in a child sleep coach could be your next step. We decided on a new method and if we were still in the same place in a month I was prepared to seek professional help. Controlled crying was not something that felt right for us as a family (we also had twin 2 sleeping peacefully who we didn’t want to wake!)
When your child is scared to go to sleep – and is working through a genuine fear – it’s all about creating a happy and peaceful sleep environment. For us our child was simply too frightened to leave to cry, so I adapted our own gradual retreat method. This was long, and I needed patience – but it worked in the short and long term eventually. It went a little like this:
- Go through bedtime routine steps as usual.
- Explain that once you’re done, its time to get into bed. (Note it took a couple of weeks for us of my child falling asleep on me, on her floor, before she would even entertain the idea of going into bed. I eventually started explaining that sitting on the floor every night was making my back sore so I couldn’t do it anymore).
- Once in bed, if upset, I would pick up for cuddles and lay back down again, rinse and repeat until calm.
- I then spent a couple of weeks laying next to her cot and holding her hand while she drifted off, this enabled her to drift off in her bed (a huge win) with the comfort of me there. I always made a point of explaining, during cuddles, that I would be in the house all night and to simply call me if she needed anything. I eventually gravitated to having a hand on her tummy, and moving it away before she nodded of.
- Once this was going well, I moved slightly away from the bed every-night to eventually be laying down on the other side of the room.
- Once I felt her fear had been worked through and she was more calm and relaxed at bedtime, I started to leave the room gradually. I said I had to make a cup of tea, or put the washing machine on, and that I would be back soon to check on her. I was surprised that this worked first time! I would go back in the room a couple of times but eventually I only went back in if she got upset. With her night light and moshi story playing in the background, she finally seemed happy to drop off in her bed without me.
This took a lot of time and patience, but has worked long term for us which was a huge game changer. Shes much more happy during the day with proper sleep and I have time to decompress and recharge also.
It can feel hopeless when your child is suddenly scared to go to sleep, but with a few tweaks your totally capable of getting your child in a sleep routine that works for you and them. Try not to feel too defeated by a sudden change to an otherwise solid bedtime, as your child makes sense of the world things can often seem a little scary. When your child becomes scared to go to sleep, there’s usually a reason begin it. Plenty of outside play always helps too, so try and structure in some outside time between nap and tea time.
Good luck! You’re doing an amazing job xo
Thanks for stopping by at my corner of the internet, I’m Maz – you can read about me here – it’s my mission to lift the lid on motherhood and make your parenting journey easier. Stick around for recipes, hacks and tips and truths on lessening the overwhelm and simplifying motherhood and twin parenting. If you enjoyed this blog pop me a message or comment – I’d love to hear from you! Twin mama?… You’ll also love My Tips on acing a twin bedtime alone – which you can read about here.