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Fears At Night

“For 9 months we have been trying to assure our 4-year-old that there is nothing to be scared of at night.”

“She keeps asking “What’s that noise” even when the house is quiet. She said she was scared of the shadows from a light fixture and “bad people.” She expected us to answer her questions until she fell asleep. Now her fears seem worse and she refuses to go to bed unless one of us lies next to her until she falls asleep. We have tried everything without success: lights on in her room and outside of her room, music playing, big stuffed animals near her as “guards,” talking to her via a baby monitor, closing her bedroom door, reasoning with her, and assuring her that we had fears when we were kids. Nothing worked. She also wakes up in the night and cries for us. Sometimes she comes to our room so we take her back to her room and stay until she falls asleep. Our 7-month-old girl sleeps in another bedroom but that doesn’t appear to be part of this.”

I remember and I sympathize! You have both an infant and a child afraid to sleep alone. All those lost hours of sleep!

You have already tried a bunch of my tricks. These and your praiseworthy efforts to alleviate your child’s fears have led to an unintended and unwanted consequence. Your daughter is calling all the sleep shots. She knows you will go to bed with her, you will stay with her until she falls asleep, if she wakes up you will be there again.

You lose sleep. But your daughter loses something too. She is deprived of the chance to learn how to self-soothe and to develop sleep associations of her own. We all wake up several times a night but have learned to fall back asleep by ourselves. We wiggle around or we adjust the covers and pillow so sleepily we may not realize we have been awake.

In your daughter’s defense, she has a new sibling so she must share parental love with her sister. In your defense there is a new sibling so you ponder whether you are being as good a parent as you were before the baby came and whether you are meeting the older child’s needs.

What to do now? Somehow you have to convey the fact that falling asleep is what we do by ourselves. I recommend telling your daughter the bedtime ritual (snack, bath, teeth, story and or bedtime song) will continue but she is a big girl now and it is time she learns to fall asleep on her own. You did it, Daddy did it, every child does it, and you know she will be able to do it.

You will have to keep taking her back to bed as I guarantee she will use all her wiles to keep things the way they are now with her two bedtime servants obeying her every wish. There will be tears.

Praise her for every “good” night. Consider a gold star chart with a reward after a week of good goodnights. Remember, the change you desire, sleep independence, won’t happen overnight (no pun intended).

Crying at night is for little babies, not big girls. Gently keep reminding her she is a big girl now. Ask for and expect her help with the baby, fetching toys and singing her little songs

Some children do have more sleep problems than others. But you won’t be there in her college dormitory room 14 years hence. So even though it’s hard to hear her cry it’s important to work on those sleep issues now.