You've spent months trying to master your toddler's nightly tuck-in, and you're finally reaping the rewards with their blissful slumber. But around the age of 3, your perfected routine may start to crumble when your kiddo suddenly seems spooked by nightmares or has a fear of the dark.
At this age, a child's imagination is rich and filled with vivid possibilities. Their thought process dovetails nicely when it relates to pretend play and dress-up games, but it can rock the house if nighttime anxiety becomes a regular pattern.
"Preschoolers tend to have a difficult time differentiating between reality and fantasy—hence the fear of monsters under the bed or the boogie man lurking in the closet," explains Kim West, LCSW, aka "The Sleep Lady," a child and family therapist and author of "Good Night, Sleep Tight."
As kids move into elementary school, their nighttime worries may be based more on actual events, including a fear of storms, injury, or fire, she notes.
"And sometimes children become alarmed about the outside world entering their own, which could mean being worried about burglars," West says.
Conquering night fright can be a bit of a production, but it's necessary in order to get back on a solid sleep track. Here are seven ways to quiet your child's racing mind and ease nightmares:
1. Light the way
You may already have a lamp or a plug-in down the hall, but consider letting your tot help to choose another, special nightlight that he gets to turn on at bedtime. Encouraging a bit of owership may ease his worries and give him peace of mind in the dark.
2. Chat them up
"Ask your child to try and open up about what's bothering her at night and then remind her of her safety," suggests West. Don't minimize her fears. Acknowledge them, because they're very real in her mind, and give her your understanding and sympathy.
3. Read all about it
Check out storybooks about kids tackling nightmares at your local library or go online to order one or two. Reading with him about characters who've dealt with nighttime jitters can show him that his fears can be overcome.
4. Designate a helper
Many kids have a lovey—either a stuffed animal, blanket, or other soft item—that helps them get through the night. Selecting a particular toy to comfort your tot can be a nice bedtime transition. And if your child has one already, let him know he can rely on his "friend" to keep him company and help him fall asleep.
5. Write it down
"If your child can write, encourage her to put what's bothering her on a piece of paper. Alternatively, she could draw pictures of it," says West. Once it's down on paper, have her rip it up and throw it away. "This symbolic act gives your child a chance to take her scary thoughts and toss them out. And then she can decide how to replace them with something that makes her happy instead," she explains.
6. Say "namaste"
Deep breathing before bedtime is very relaxing for both you and your child. Take a few minutes to practice bedtime yoga and make it a part of the nightly routine. If your tot enjoys it, you might expand upon this idea and sign him up for a kids' yoga class.
7. Power it down
Turn off electronic devices, including tablets, TV, and computer games. "Violent movies or games before bed won't help a child to settle down," says West. The same holds for scary books and TV news reports that detail disasters, crime, or terrorism. Keep the house quiet for at least an hour before your child hits the hay.
What not to do:
However you tackle the night fright issue, there are a few things you definitely shouldn't try. "Never shame, tease, or threaten your child with punishment because she wakes up afraid of the dark or suffering because of a nightmare," urges West. Instead, reassure her and agree to stay nearby at bedtime until she's calm.