Kids Health Info

Night time worries (school age children)

  • It is not unusual for some children to have night time worries or fears. Sometimes parents will describe their child as being 'a bit of a worrier'. Helping them overcome their night time worries teaches them skills they can use in other areas. Some children suffer from a more general anxiety which may need further treatment.

    What should I do?

    Talking about it

    Young children may say they fear the dark or monsters. 

    Older children may not be able to say what they are worrying about but have trouble falling asleep. They often worry about not being able to sleep and will tell you "I can't sleep". It is important not to disregard your child but at the same time you shouldn't place too much importance on irrational fears.

    It is important to give your child the message that you have confidence in them to deal with this. It is a good idea to discuss it during the day, away from their bedtime. During the day your child is more likely to be feeling confident and can listen to reason.

    Routine

    It's important to stick to your child's bedtime routine. Your child may need reassurance and support but try to avoid getting into a routine that makes your child dependent on you to fall asleep.  For example, routines that involve you having to lie with them, or having your child in your bed. Being gentle but firm, and setting limits, makes your child feel safe. It also tells a child that you have confidence in them to manage this. Giving in to your child's requests may give them the message they are not going to be okay and that there really is something to worry about.  

    Externalising fears

    This is a way of helping your child to deal with their fears and worries by using creative ideas to get rid of their fears and worries.

    • 'Monster traps' are something many children and parents have found helpful. This can be talked about and set up during the day and is a way of making the child feel safe. Be creative with it.
    • A 'worry box' works in the same way for older children with vague worries. They can put the worries in the box and think about them tomorrow.
    • A special 'fairy' or protective 'dragon' is a way of using a child's imagination in an adaptive way. The fairy or dragon looks after them and takes away their worries. Planning this ahead of time and talking about it during the day, when they feel confident, will help them feel confident at night. 

    Relaxation

    Even young children can learn relaxation techniques. These include:

    • Breathing exercises.
    • Muscle relaxation:  This has many benefits. Concentrating on relaxation is a distraction and can stop your child worrying. There are many physical feelings associated with worrying (e.g. breathing faster, sweating, heart racing). Relaxation can get rid of these physical feelings and make your child feel better able to cope. 
    • Positive imagery: Sometimes called going to a happy place.  Children who are 'worriers' often have a vivid imagination. By using their imagination to create a happy place when they are in bed may distract them from their worries, help them relax and fall asleep. 

    Other ideas

    • Night-light - as long as it does not stop your child from falling asleep, a dim night-light may be very helpful.
    • Security object - let your child choose something that will help them feel safe and more relaxed at night. This might be a soft toy, a favourite blanket or mummy's nightie, etc.

    Positive reinforcement

    Children often get lots of attention for having fears or worries which may encourage the behaviour. It is important to reward children for being brave and for managing their worries. Sticker charts work well even in older children. Break the process down into different parts and reward your child for each part so that they feel they are doing well. For example, a sticker for getting into bed, staying in bed and sleeping through.

    Key points to remember

    • Children may not be able to tell you what their worries are but will not be able to get to sleep.
    • It is important for your child to learn how to deal with the problem in a positive and independent way.
    • Your child will benefit from learning relaxation and coping skills.
    • Positive reinforcement for successes will encourage your child and help them to keep up with the changes.

    For more information

     Melbourne Children's Sleep Centre logo

    Produced in consultation with the Melbourne Children's Sleep Unit, Royal Children's Hospital (RCH). Many thanks to the parents who helped with this fact sheet. First published  2005. Updated November 2010.

     

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Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.