Q: My little boy is 2 years 7 months old. He’s always been an amazing sleeper and has rarely, if ever, had trouble going down to sleep. Just recently he has started giving us a very hard time before bed and nap time. It seem like he is afraid of something — he screams and cries for mom or dad (whoever puts him to bed) for close to 30 minutes and then usually collapses from exhaustion. At bath time he will start to say “no night night, no night night.”
A: It is entirely possible that there is something about bedtime that is frightening to a child this age. It may simply be the separation from you (which is long!). Children this age have a very hard time differentiating real from imaginary so any scary content from books, tv or peers can carry over to bedtime. It is important to remove anything that you think might be scaring your child (even if the content is relatively benign). Keep things very light and reassuring. Sometimes kids this age feel a little better if there is a very dim night light in their room. Address common fears about monsters by being very clear that they are not real. Tell him that he can pretend to be a monster by dressing up and even painting his face (like Halloween), but that they aren’t real. Using dramatic play (dressing up as a monster or the thing he is fearful of) is a way to put him in a position of power over his fear and help him to conquer this fear and ultimately sleep better.
It is perfectly fine to sit in a chair in his room until he falls asleep. Reassure him a few times that you will sit until he’s asleep to get him over this hurdle. He will start to fall asleep more quickly and you can move the chair closer to the door and ultimately out of the room. This is a nice way to support him at a difficult time.
It is also possible that the timing of his bedtime is part of the problem, too. Sometimes when children begin protesting anew, it’s because they’re overtired and need an earlier bedtime. His nap should end by 3:30 p.m. and bedtime should therefore be at 8:30 (5 hours later).
Lastly, make sure you have a soothing bedtime ritual that happens at a predictable time every day. If one parent is rushing in from work and doesn’t have much time to connect before bedtime, this could be very disruptive. It is important for children to have at least 45-60 minutes with a parent whom they haven’t seen all day before going to bed, otherwise they will protest that separation more.