When It’s Something More: Dealing with Toddler Fears at Nighttime


When my son turned three and a half, he suddenly stopped going to sleep at night. He would play in his room, quietly but in a desperate effort to flight sleep, for hours on end. At first, we tried to ignore his nighttime adventures. Then we tried talking to him about why he was staying up. He was adamant that he just wasn’t tired. Over the next few weeks, we asked his preschool to shorten his naps, we made his room cozy but plain, we added lavender to his bath, bought a “fun” nightlight, and added an extra story and an extra cuddle into the bedtime routine. Still, despite our efforts, he continued to spend up to two hours in his room, awake, at nighttime.

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Finally, after almost two months of his up-late routine, we reached out to a child therapist to see if there was something else we could be doing to help our son get the rest he needed. After asking us all sorts of questions about his routine, the therapist began to ask us about what else was going on in our lives. As we talked, we realized that our son might be experiencing some stress and fear that was impacting his desire to sleep.

Over the previous few months, we had moved, he had switched schools, and, though it had been about a year since their passing, my boy had started asking a lot of questions about his great-grandparent’s deaths.

The therapist advised us that when kids experience stress or fears that keep them from sleeping, it was important to maintain a steady, loving nighttime routine and gave us a few other tips to follow. If your child is experiencing trouble sleeping due to fears or stress, consider trying out one of the tips below.

Reassure them that you’ll meet their needs

When a child is feeling stressed, it’s important that they know their caregiver will be there to meet their needs. Let your child know that you’ll be there for them and respond when they reach out for support. Often, young kids don’t know how to use their words to ask for their needs to be met. You might find that your child is asking for an extra hug, acting out at nighttime, or staying up late.

Make bedtime pleasant

While sleep, and the separation from light and their loved ones that often entails can be stressful for kids, bedtime can be a pleasant experience. Read a favorite book, snuggle up and tell a story, hold hands for a few extra minutes, and let your kiddo know just how loved they are.

Help them problem solve

If your child is able to verbalize their fears, perhaps to let you know that dark makes them feel nervous or they feel stressed about going to school without you in the mornings, consider helping them problem solve in ways that make sense to them. While their fears might not seem logical to a grown up, they are very real to the child experiencing them and it can be damaging to minimize them.

Give them a comfort item


Sometimes, providing your child with a comfort item can help them feel safe enough to rest. Consider letting them choose a special blanket, stuffed animal or nightlight to use at bedtime. If your little one seems to miss you at night, consider letting them choose something of yours, like your pillow or a soft sweater, to cuddle up with at night. 

{ MORE: Work Hard, Sleep Harder: How to Improve Your Sleep Health }

If your little one has trouble sleeping for a prolonged period, consider reaching out to their pediatrician or a child therapist to brainstorm solutions that might work for them!

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When It’s Something More: Dealing with Toddler Fears at Nighttime

Julia Pelly has a master's degree in public health and works full time in the field of positive youth development. Julia loves hiking after work, swimming during the summer and taking long, cuddly afternoon naps with her two sons on the weekends. Julia lives in North Carolina, with her husband and two young boys. You can find more of her work at JuliaPelly.com ... More

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