You think bedtime is stressful for you? Just imagine how your child feels. There are spooky shadows in the corner, slithery things under the bed, and, worst of all, a whole night away from mom and dad. "The majority of kids at some time will have some sort of bedtime anxiety," which can take the form of crying, inability to sleep or simply stalling at bedtime, says Nanci Yuan, a sleep specialist at the Palo Alto, Calif. Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. The good news: for most children, a few simple steps can do wonders to keep the creepies -- and crying -- at bay.
Know what works. Some parents favor fantasy -- think "monster spray" or a "magic flashlight" to rid the room of pests -- while others prefer a straightforward reassurance such as, "you're always safe when you're home," says Jill Spivack, co--creator of the Sleepeasy Solution. Choose the one that works best for you and for your children.
Understand the cause. Anxiety can stem from feelings of missing out on the fun (especially if older siblings are staying up later), missing out on time with parents, or fear, says Yuan. "They're more into magical thinking as they get older, so they sometimes become fearful about falling asleep and being alone in the dark," she says. Nighttime anxiety can also stem from daytime worries; stress about school, friends or home may be at play.
Be consistent. Bedtime will be less stressful for parents and kids alike if both sides know exactly what to expect. "They can relax because they know what happens next," says Kim West, a family therapist who specializes in sleep issues. Plus, if you stick with a plan, you're less likely to run out of time for soothing rituals like reading to your child or talking quietly before bed.
Comfort him, but within limits. If he's scared, do comfort him. But it's important to stick with to your overarching rules, whatever they may be. So, if the rule is "you must stay in your room all night," as Spivack recommends, you'll need to enforce it, quietly and firmly.
Give her the tools to comfort herself. The end goal is to ensure that your child can fall asleep on her own, says Yuan. Teach her to comfort herself. "It may be getting her to use a transitional object like a teddy bear or blanket," says Yuan. Try taking simple steps like leaving a light on, cracking a door open or letting a child wear a parent's t-shirt to bed. You can try banishing the bad thoughts by getting your child to "throw them away," says West. "They can act it out and say, 'I don't need you, bad thought.'" Then have her think up happy thoughts about a fun vacation or a best friend instead.