My Toddler is Scared to Go to Sleep Alone: What Can a Parent Do?

I’d barely left the room when my son’s cries started. Again, like the previous night, another meltdown when the lights were turned out. We had followed our routine. First, a nice bath. Then a few of his favorite books. We read them together, laughing and letting our imaginations bring the stories to life. Yet, my son was scared to go to sleep by himself in his room without me. He said over and over that there was something in his room that was going to get him.

This was hardly the first night. I was tired, frustrated, and beside myself. I returned to his room and clicked on the light, looking around the room. After all, it was the perfect bedroom for a little boy. Still, he sat up in his bed, tears in his eyes. As he called to me, I walked to his bed and sat down to comfort him. He was too wound up to lie in his bed quietly, so I had to sit with him, and eventually lie down with him.

Only then could he fall asleep.

The First Step to Helping a Child Sleep Alone is Taking a Step Back To Get Calm Yourself

It is so very common for young children to struggle at the end of the day. What represents a time of relaxation and relief for adults can be a time for anxiety in children. Each night when they close their eyes, they often feel like that are separating from you, as if you were leaving them somewhere to travel on alone.

It is no wonder they have strong emotional reactions in the transition.

You might be called into the room to slay monsters, or investigate shadows or unexplained noises. Maybe your child won’t stay in bed, following you out of the room every time you try to escape. Maybe they demand that you lie in the bed with them until they drift off like all three of mine did (and do).

Going to sleep troubles come at a time of day when most parents are out of gas, out of patience, out of energy. The end of the day is when we just want the kids to go to sleep, so that we can finally take some time for ourselves. Perhaps we’ll finally get to shower, work, eat, surf Facebook or Tik Tok mindlessly, or spend some time with our significant other.

When our children refuse to go quietly and quickly to sleep, we don’t have the resources always to deal with the situation calmly and rationally. We can’t always see or understand the cause, or help them get calm for sleep, because we ourselves are frustrated, annoyed, hungry, and anxious to get to some other tasks.

The first step to helping your child get to sleep at night is to find a way to get and remain calm. No joke. The more animated and frustrated you become (yelling at them to go to sleep, to get back in bed, to stop making so much noise), the less likely that your child is going to be able to go to sleep. Once you are calm (truly calm), you can start to address the problem.

The Next Step to Help Your Child Go to Sleep is Connecting With Your Child To Help Him With Whatever His Feelings Are

When your child is struggling at bedtime, it could be that there is actually something scary in his room. Or it could be that he is struggling with separation anxiety. It could also be that there is a lingering emotion or feeling from the day that is bubbling up now that the rest of the day is over and all is quiet.

You could investigate for hours and not be able to confirm what the exact problem is. For young children, they may not even be able to explain why they are feeling the way they do or are acting the way that they are. Remember, if you are a parent are feeling tired late in the evening, your child is feeling some version of the exact same thing, even if they are jumping up and down on the bed.

In general, the most important thing you can do during bedtime struggles (and to help calm your child) is to find a way to connect with him. That can come in many forms. Perhaps it is repeating the bedtime routine in a calm manner. Or it is returning to the room to give more hugs and reassurance. Maybe it is pulling up a chair to sit by the door.

There are many opinions about what you should or should not do to resolve the situation, and many of them contradict each other. Some experts will tell you to help the child see that there are no monsters by checking the entire room with them, while others tell you not to do that because it might validate the existence of monsters. Others will tell you to sit with them until they are calm, while others will tell you not to because it teaches the child that you will stay in the room with them (thereby encouraging the bad behavior).

People have their own experiences with sleep training or sleep teaching, and they teach it and tell it like it is THE GOSPEL and that if anyone has any other experience or opinion, that experience is wrong.

I think you need to follow your gut, and try out the strategies that make sense to you. My pediatrician reminds me almost every appointment that no one knows my child better than I do. Not the sleep experts, not the doctors. My gut as a mother is a valuable asset and I should listen to it. Perhaps I will choose wrong sometimes, but over time, if I pay attention, stay calm, and focus on my goal, I will get there.

Regardless of what you decide to do, however, I think that you will see the most success if you find a way to connect with your child emotionally. Reassure him that you are there, that you are strong, calm, and confident, and that you can and will take care of him. Use the trouble as a time to strengthen your relationship with him, rather than by harming it with trauma.

Once You’ve Connected With Your Child, Execute Your Plan, Whatever That Is

In my case (continuing the struggle story from above), I decided to try and connect with my son by validating his fears (talking) and investigating with him in the room about what was scaring him. And yes, I know people disagree with this strategy. But that’s what I did, and here is how it played out.

As we investigated, his room seemed perfect to me. All his favorite superheroes covered the walls. The same little lamp from his nursery was lit. A little cone of light ran up the wall. “What was it?” I asked him. When he wasn’t able to explain, I made a big show of checking under the bed, looking in the closet, opening the drawers, and checking behind the curtains.

When I turned off the light and left, however, he began to cry again. I felt frustrated, and defeated. But instead of taking out my emotions on my child, I dug deeper. I sat on his bed and patted his back until he drifted off.

Did I feel like I had “won” that night when I was finally able to leave his room? No, I didn’t. He didn’t go to sleep without me. But he did go to sleep in his bed, and he stayed there all night. And it was done without trauma, without yelling, manipulation, threats, or aggression.

In our case, the crying at bedtime went on for several days. Finally, just about when I was at my wit’s end, my son was able to communicate with me what was troubling him. In the daylight, his room was cheerful. When the lights went out, however, the room transformed to his eyes. Shadows danced. Those posters on his wall of his favorite characters? They came to life in the dark. He was scared, but was too embarrassed to share that detail with me.

After some adjustments to his décor, all was better again. Take note that there are sounds and shadows that escape detection during the commotion of the day. But when the lights are dimmed and background noise is gone, they are amplified. Consequently, that small cone of light from his lamp created shadows that loomed. The heater no longer cycled on and off. In the still of the night it roared to life. In his mind, its echoes filled the room.

The only reason he was finally able to talk to me was that he felt connected to me and trusted me enough. Only then could I make the changes to help him.

Resolving Sleep Issues at Bedtime Takes Time

There’s no one reason why kids struggle at bedtime. I wish there was, but there isn’t. Here are some strategies that you can cycle through as you work to help your child to get sleep more easily.

Focus on calm at or near bedtime. This can mean saving adventure books and stories for mornings or afternoons, and talking about exciting things over breakfast instead.

I love story time with our son. It’s always a blast. His imagination kicks my own into gear. As a writer, it’s inspiring. But like anything else, that imagination can be a double-edged sword. His imagination is still young, and without the knowledge required to ground out irrational fears. Think about this in detail. Was that story you read together as innocent as it sounded? How about the cartoons he watched? If you feed him strong imagery and stimulating stories right at bedtime, your child is going to struggle to wind down and lie down.

Instead, I would read books that are less exciting, or even tell him a quiet story with the lights off. Do a mediation exercise or deep breathing.

Talk to Your Child About Bedtime Troubles

It’s not always a noise from the shadows causing the fear. It could be something else. When he was ready, I asked my son about his dreams. I recommend you do the same. It could be that something happened and it’s manifesting itself through his or her dreams. For my son, it was an event at his preschool. After talking it over, we sorted it out.

Undoubtedly, major events will cause issues. Those are the easy ones to identify. On the other hand, seemingly insignificant events can have an impact too. Whether it’s an incident at school, or even something that happened to a friend, it could cause fear. Talk to your child about these things. It’s important not to gloss over the little details. In the end, they could be the source of anxiety.

After talking to your child, reflect on what you learned. Is it a simple fix? On the other hand, it could be an indication of something much larger that needs attention. Talking to your child is the first step in letting them know you are there to listen. If there is a larger problem to concern yourself with, these small conversations will help bring them into the open.

Help Him Feel Secure Without You in the Room

Other parents won’t agree, but I personally like the idea of encouraging a security blanket or security friend/stuffie who sleeps in the bed with the child. One of my children is very emotional, and he utilizes his blanket to help himself calm down, to relax, to feel warm and safe. I have another child who has a stuffed dog that helps her go to sleep.

Naturally, it is a disaster when those items are lost.

But still, we’ve worked over time to make these items powerful in the bedroom at night when the kids are trying to sleep.

Night lights and white noise machines are also good tools to help kids feel better being alone in the bedroom when it is time to go to sleep.

Development Related Sleep Regression

Another thing to investigate further is whether any of your current sleep troubles are actually the result of age and physical development.

Young children (especially babies and toddler aged children) tend to struggle with the sleep routine (or even regress significantly) during or right after times when their bodies or brain grow. Sleep regressions in toddlers are very tough for parents to get through without losing their minds, but it can help you deal with it when you know the source of the trouble.

If your child is only a few months old or a newborn, much of the advice in this will not apply. Instead, take a look at this post about newborns and sleep.

See also:

Wrapping Up

There isn’t just one way to deal with sleep troubles. These are just a few suggestions. Just make sure that you figure out your boundaries, and then stick to them. If you aren’t okay with kids climbing into your bed at night (increasing the risk dramatically that they will pee in your bed), then STICK to that limit, and put them back in bed if they get up. If you aren’t okay with kids leaving their room to find out, then STICK to that limit, and put a simple gate up to keep them there. You can always go to them if they cry, but be firm about your decision that they cannot walk around the house in the middle of the night.

Did you ever struggle with sleeping as a child? What helped you? Without a doubt, it wasn’t being scolded or having your fears minimized. Out of frustration, it’s the easy thing to do. In the end, it will always be your love and calm reassurance that will help guide them through this time as quickly as possible.