Expert Opinion

Sleep, anxiety and nightmares with Lisa Dinnie

My child really struggles with bedtime – I think that they might be scared or anxious about sleeping… Is this normal?

As children get older, there can be a bit of bedtime anxiety – knowing there is a long separation from mum and dad ahead of them. Temperament plays a huge role in this as well. If you have a sensitive little soul, they may well feel more anxious about sleep. It is easy to brush off and say “its okay” but, often, the key is to validate their emotions, respect their fears, and if they are old enough: talk to them about what they think may help.

Fear of the dark? Use a nightlight.

Fear of separation? Talk about how you always check on them, read books about connection, include play in their bedtime routine and also help them understand that as a parent, your job is to keep them safe – using that language is so important.

What causes bed-time anxiety in children?

To be honest, I don’t necessarily think there is a cause. However, if bedtime is stressful, rushed, not enjoyable, then this can lead to children fighting sleep or becoming worried about bedtime.

We treat parenting so seriously, that sometimes we forget to just have fun… Laughter and fun decreases stress and anxiety, so bedtime should definitely include those elements, where and when possible.

My child is constantly waking up from nightmares and coming to my room in the middle of the night. What’s the best way to handle this in the immediate moment?      

Once your child starts developing their imagination, can retain memories, starts watching and understanding tv shows, then, yes, they could start having nightmares, which can be a tricky thing to address as a parent.

With nightmares, I recommend that you talk through with your child that it is just a dream, and remind them that they are safe when they wake up scared in the middle of the night.

Comfort them, talk it through, let them know it isn’t real life. Get them a drink of water and allow them to calm down before going back to sleep.

Beyond the immediate moment, what are some ways to handle constant nightmares in the long-run? Can you encourage them to stop completely? 

Beyond the immediate moment, my recommendation would be to assess certain elements of their lifestyle first – what are they viewing? What are they reading? Because: what may not seem scary to us, children can perceive a lot differently.

I also recommend positive affirmations via audio stories – these are a fantastic way to relax your little one’s mind at bedtime, which can positively impact on bad dreams.

Is it a good idea to reward a child that stays in bed, even when they are scared? Or should I comfort them and nurse them back to sleep?

This is likely going to be situation dependent. Dealing with the reasons why they are scared is the first step – giving them the confidence to go to sleep initially without the fear can positively impact on sleep.

Rule out reasons why they are waking – are they on the right routine? Are they cold? Are they overtired? I think with older children, waking and walking to get mum and dad can become habitual behaviour – it’s what they have always done and, as they get older, some children can respond well to reward charts or the like… Is it something I use regularly? No – because I do always aim to rule out reasons why they are waking/why they are scared first – that’s your first, important step.

About the author

Lisa is the founder of Cherish Your Sleep, Co-Regional Director (Australia/Pacific) of The Association of Professional Sleep Consultants, an experienced certified baby/child sleep consultant and a mother to 3 young children.
She has always loved children and has worked in the industry for over 20 years as a qualified child care worker, working primarily with children aged 0 – 3yrs.
A successful outcome is not only good for the parents and children, but also giver Lisa a sense of satisfaction and happiness – there’s nothing better than hearing from a parent who finally got their first full night sleep since having a child.
Becoming a mum and meeting and seeing other mums struggle with their babies and children’s sleep made Lisa really want to reach out and help. She doesn’t see that there is a one size fits all to helping families – sleep is almost like a Puzzle – you need all the pieces in place to achieve the full picture and those pieces are what she shares with families.
Lisa uses a holistic approach to sleep, focusing on emotional wellbeing of families and ensuring the parent child connection in not only maintained, but enhanced. She knows how easy it is to become overwhelmed and frustrated, so it’s her passion to help find solutions that will work for you, your baby and the rest of your family.
Photo by Artem Podrez