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Too Scared to Sleep & Ways My Child is Coping

Bedtime is a struggle lately because my youngest daughter is too scared to sleep. She’s not just scared of the dark; she’s actually scared to go to sleep. It hasn’t always been this way. She was my good sleeper from day one. During her first 24 hours of life Earthside she slept for at least four to five hours at a time, something almost unheard of with newborns. But for whatever reason over the last year and a half, her brain and her extreme fears have got her to the point of being too scared to sleep.

I’m no therapist or doctor, but I truly think her fears originated as a result of several deaths that we’ve experienced during the last two years. She’s lost two of her great-grandmothers, both of which she had good relationships with. My poor girl still struggles with death of Duke, our beloved family dog. There have been other losses mixed in with those three big ones, too. And now, her thoughts and fears keep her up at night.

When We First Noticed She Was Too Scared to Sleep

Her fears started prior to moving to North Carolina. We would be at our home back in Maryland, in her room that she shared with her older sister. Despite the multitude of night lights, calming music, army of stuffed animals and the presence of her older sister, she was still terrified to sleep. Fast forward to where we live now, and all of that is still true. She still has a plethora of nightlights. Stuffed animals line the end of her bed, ready for snuggles. And she still shares a room with her sister. Yet, night after night I have to assure her that it is in fact safe for her to fall asleep.

For a five year old, experiencing death on so many levels can cause questions and uncertainty. She now has questions like, “What if you die Mommy?” Of course, I know that this will ultimately be the case one day. It breaks my heart to hear her ask me that question. As her mother, I know that it is my job to teach her strength, courage and coping skills. But that can even be hard for me at times, especially when I’m not sure what exactly it is that she needs.

On nights that she is too scared to sleep, she'll often come out of her room several times. Sometimes we let her cuddle with us until she falls asleep.
She was too scared to sleep in her room, so she came downstairs for cuddles.

Coping With Her Fear of Sleep

When your child is too scared to sleep, you’ve got to do something to help them. While I know she is too scared to sleep, I also know that she NEEDS sleep. Recently, we created a routine that has helped her tremendously. Our routine includes the obvious things like brushing teeth, being tucked in, and giving hugs and kisses. But we’ve added a few new steps, too.

It’s crazy how much progress she has made during such a short amount of time. Within three days of our new routine, she is falling asleep on her own and staying in her bed all night. It is such a relief! And now, she even corrects me if I forget to cover part of what we do each night. She’ll say, “Hey Mommy. You forgot something!” Let me tell you more about what we do each night to get her to sleep.

What We Do:

  1. Create a routine. Routines are so, so, so important for younger children. Not only does it make it easier to get everyone in sync, but also gives them a sense of security. When they have a routine, they know what to expect with each step. I try to make our bedtime routine as calm as possible, because I know that my youngest needs calm surroundings in order to remain calm.
  2. Find a way to keep them focused on the positive. This is the challenging part. But I promise you, if you can get your kiddo to focus on positive thoughts, they will go to sleep so much easier. There are two things that finally worked for us. One, we use bedtime calming videos on YouTube. Now I know what you’re going to say….screens are bad at bed time. I get it. But I pick ones with a dark background so that the room remains as dark as possible. She particularly likes the videos where paint swirls through the screen, or ones that look like a lava lamp. Before I leave the room I always tell her, “Lay down, focus on the swirls and try to relax.” I try not to tell her “goodnight” because then her mind immediately goes back to the idea of sleep. And then she panics.
  3. Find a way to remind them that they’re not alone, and that they are safe. There are two ways that we fulfill this part of our routine. First, we do affirmations. Before I leave the room we say this, “I am safe. I am protected. I am loved. I am going to sleep good tonight. Mommy and Daddy will do anything to protect me.” We say that twice in a call and response style. Then, I set a timer on my watch. I tell her when the timer goes off, I will come back and check on her. This lets her know that I am not leaving her forever, and immediately she feels safer.

You’ve Got This, and So Do They

You’ve got this, and so does your little one. I know how hard it is to watch your kid struggle, and to not know how to help them. But I also know that with the right tools, and with some determination, you can get through these tough times. I’m not saying things will be easy. In fact, they will probably be really hard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to let her sleep with me just so that I can get some sleep. But I’m sticking to my plan, and so far we’re seeing positive results.

A lot of people will tell you that it’s “just a phase.” You might even hear that your kid is “just being stubborn.” While that may be the case for some children, I don’t believe that’s truly the main reason. Most young kids don’t know how to communicate properly. In my daughter’s case, she’s fighting bed because she is too scared to sleep. And not just too scared to sleep, but so afraid of sleep that she often says she’ll die if she goes to sleep. When big fears like that pop up, find a way to talk it out with your kiddo. And like we’re doing, get some help. I’m a true believer that therapy, when needed, can provide children with a magnificent set of extra resources.

Hang in there! We’ve got this.

-Meg