You’ve survived the newborn phase, the teething and your child learning the word “no.” Your little one is going to sleep through the night, every night, until he goes to college, right?! Wrong. The toddler stage can bring on a whole new set of issues that can affect their sleep; and one of them is anxiety. With the holidays around the corner, fear and anxiety can escalate as a result of lots of extra activities, sugar and anticipation.
Toddlers and preschoolers can suddenly become fearful, especially at bedtime. It’s a normal developmental stage that can start a little after two and peak between the ages of 3 and 5. It may be about the dark, loud or unusual noises, a new teacher, or even monsters under the bed. If your child can communicate well, you can try to determine the root of the anxiety, acknowledge the fear and let them know that they are safe. But don’t let the scaries derail sleep.
Here are 6 steps that you can take to help your anxious toddler get a good night’s sleep.
1. Keep up with the bedtime routine. Keeping your bedtime routine as consistent as possible, even through holiday travel and festivities, is key to prevent anxiety from taking over. Knowing what to expect at bedtime is comforting. Especially during this busy time of year, a predictable routine is helpful to an overstimulated, anxious little one.
2. Lean on the lovey. A beloved object (a lovey, small stuffed animal, blanket, etc.) can be super helpful in calming an anxious toddler. We especially love using these during transition times that can trigger anxiety and fear--preschool drop-offs, travel, a doctor’s visit and especially at night. Make sure your child’s favorite elephant/puppy/threadbare blankie is there to comfort them during these times.
3. Talk them through their fears. Toddlers are smart and understand more than we think, so don’t feel like you have to make up some fantastical story about how they can’t get sucked up by the vacuum. Keep it simple and factual, and don’t feed the need to sugarcoat. For example, you could say, “I know the vacuum is really loud, but it only sucks up dirt and crumbs, not people. Let me show you.” Actually demonstrating how the fear is unfounded can be helpful.
4. Adapt your toddler's sleep environment. Fear around bedtime and potential monsters lurking under the bed is common. Assure your little one that monsters aren’t real and their room is safe. If the dark is a cause for concern, get a warm, dim nightlight. A lot of night lights are too bright and have blue light which keeps the brain awake. (We’re big fans of this nightlight!).
5. Read about it. Books about bedtime fears are great tools also--they show other kids coping with their worries and getting good rest. This list is a great compilation of some of our favs.
6. Take care of your own anxieties. Like the kid in Jerry Maguire said, “Do you know that bees and dogs can smell fear?” Add toddlers to that list. If you are fearful of something (flying, spiders, shots) and show it, your little sidekick will pick up on it and very often make it their own fear also. Do what YOU need to do to get through anxiety-producing situations so you can set a good example.
It can be rough to deal with your toddler’s anxieties, especially if it’s the first time she’s expressing them. If you feel like your child’s fears and anxieties are interfering with his everyday activities or he can’t be calmed when fearful, contact his doctor.
Leigh McMahon is a certified sleep consultant with Bonne Nuit Baby. Based in Denver, Colorado, she helps babies and children learn how to be champion sleepers so their parents can function/stay sane/cut down on the double espressos. Follow us @_bonnenuitbaby and meet Leigh @bonnenuitdenver.