My child is anxious and worries about things at bedtime

Anxiety at bedtime leads to children lying in bed worried or frightened and unable to settle to sleep, or waking and being unable to settle back to sleep. Children with insomnia (being unable to sleep) due to anxiety may worry during the day about being unable to fall asleep or stay asleep, find it hard to fall asleep at bedtime but fall asleep easily at other times (e.g. when watching television), seem tense at bedtime, and be tired during the day. Helping them overcome their night time worries teaches them skills they can use in other areas.

Choose a strategy below to help your child

Helping your child relax: Visualisation

Teaching your child ways to relax can help them fall asleep at night. This handout discusses a method known as Visualisation. Other methods include the Worry Box, Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Deep Breathing.

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. Visualisation can help children relax by helping them to think about places or activities that make them feel happy and safe.


Teaching your child deep breathing

Choose a book with pictures of a place your child can imagine (try to avoid dark or scary pictures). Talk about the picture and ask your child if she can see it in her mind. They can use their imagination to change the picture or add to it.

Your child may start to use this exercise in bed before they go to sleep. You can try gently reminding them they could try using it at bedtime, but don’t tell them they have to do this otherwise they can end up getting worried if it doesn’t work!

With any relaxation technique, it is best to be taught when not stressed.

Trying to teach a relaxation strategy when a child is very stressed can make their stress worse. Teach and practice relaxation techniques when you can both be calm and quiet together.

Helping your child relax: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Teaching your child a relaxation exercise – known as progressive muscle relaxation – can help them to relax and fall asleep at night.

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.


Teaching your child to relax their muscles

What to say to your child: You can say something like…

“Sometimes when our minds are stressed, our bodies get tense. If we can learn to relax our tense bodies, then our minds may relax too. But we need to practice what it feels like to have tense and relaxed muscles.”

This exercise can be a nice way to help your child wind down during quiet time in your pre-bedtime routine. They might be able to use it later in the night to help them get to sleep at the start of the night, or to get back to sleep if they wake overnight.


A simple relaxation scenario – Step by step

Have your child lie down on their back somewhere quiet with their legs bent at the knees so their feet are flat on the ground.

 
  1. Say, “Close your eyes and pretend you are at the beach, lying on the sand.” Ask your child to pretend they hear the water lapping against the shore.

  2. Next, ask your child to imagine that it’s a beautiful, sunny day. The sun feels warm against their skin. The sand is warm underneath their body.

  3. Have your child take a few deep breaths as they “watch the waves go in and out”.

  4. Now ask your child to squeeze the sand between their toes-squeeze hard! Breathe in, hold (count 5 seconds), breathe out, and relax.

  5. Now squeeze your legs! “Feel how tight that muscle is”. Breathe in, hold, breathe out and relax.

  6. Now ask them to tighten their bottom. Breathe in, hold, breathe out and relax.

  7. Now squeeze your tummy. Breathe in, hold, breathe out and relax.

  8. Then your chest. “Breathe in, hold, breathe out and relax.

  9. And then the face. Sometimes children don’t know how to tense up their face. You may need to say something like: “Squeeze your eyes and mouth tight!” Breathe in, hold, breathe out and relax.

  10. Then ask them to squeeze their shoulders and neck. Breathe in, hold, breathe out and relax.

  11. Now the hands and arms. Remind them to “squeeze sand in-between their fingers”. Breathe in, hold, breathe out and relax.

  12. Finally, have your child squeeze their whole body. Breathe in, hold, breathe out and relax.

  13. Ask them to take a few more deep breaths.

  14. Remind them to feel the warm sun and sand. Hear the water against the shore.

  15. If you’re not wanting your child to go to sleep now, ask them to open their eyes.

With any relaxation technique, it is best to be taught when not stressed.

Trying to teach a relaxation strategy when a child is very stressed can make their stress worse. Teach and practice relaxation techniques when you can both be calm and quiet together.

Putting worries to bed

It is not unusual for children to have worries or fears at night time. Helping them overcome their night time worries teaches them skills they can use in other areas.

This handout talks about some creative strategies that can help your child feel like the worries are being taken care of so they no longer need to be in their mind. Planning this ahead of time and talking about it during the day, when they feel confident, will help them feel confident at night.


A worry box

This is a popular strategy. Your child draws or writes about his worries during the day, and thinks or talks about possible solutions. Before bedtime, he puts the drawings in the box, and leaves them to think about tomorrow. For some children this helps their particular worry go away completely.


Monster Traps

Many children and parents have found it helpful to make a monster trap. 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 guardian dragon or guardian fairy

A special ‘fairy’ or protective ‘dragon’ is a way of using a child’s imagination in a helpful way. The fairy or dragon looks after them and takes away their worries.

Helping your child relax: Deep breathing

Teaching your child ways to relax can help them fall asleep at night. This hand- out discusses a method known as Deep Breathing. Other methods include the Worry Box, Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Visualisation.

Deep breathing can help children relax. Taking deep, slow, breaths gives our body the message to relax.


Teaching your child deep breathing

First, ask your child to relax their shoulders.

Ask them to breathe IN for four slow counts.
Say “IN, 2, 3, 4” Now HOLD the breath for four counts.
Say “HOLD, 2, 3, 4” Ask them to breathe OUT for four counts.
Say “OUT, 2, 3, 4” Now HOLD the breath for four counts.
Say “HOLD, 2, 3, 4” Repeat up to four times.
Say “IN, 2, 3, 4” …

Talk to your child about how this will relax them, and how it’ll get easier with daily practice.

Your child may start to use this exercise in bed before they go to sleep. You can try gently reminding them they could try using it at bedtime, but don’t tell them they have to do this otherwise they can end up getting worried if it doesn’t work!

With any relaxation technique, it is best to be taught when not stressed.

Trying to teach a relaxation strategy when a child is very stressed can make their stress worse. Teach and practice relaxation techniques when you can both be calm and quiet together.

Controlled comforting or checking method

Controlled Comforting or the Checking Method (for older children) is a strategy for dealing with persistent settling and waking problems in children. It involves briefly comforting, settling and then leaving your child for short time periods so your child learns to go to sleep on their own. The purpose of this is to reassure your child you are still there and to reassure yourself that your child is OK. This can be particularly helpful for children who are anxious about going to sleep.


About the method

The idea with the controlled comforting/checking method is to give your child the opportunity to learn to go to sleep by themselves. If your child gets upset when you leave their bedroom, wait a short time before you go back to them, gradually increase the time you spend outside the bedroom before going to check on them. In this way, they are also learning that you are not far away and will return.


Before you start

Parents dealing with sleep and settling problems can become very tired and stressed, particularly if they’re losing sleep themselves. Controlled comforting is sometimes tried by parents who feel overwhelmed, or whose wellbeing is suffering. Before you start, make sure your child is getting lots of attention, time and affection during the day.


Doing controlled comforting and checking method

2. Turn baby monitors down or even off: Make sure you can still hear your child without a monitor.

3. Don’t wait outside your child bedroom: Go into another room and distract yourself – make a cup of tea or turn on the TV. Only go back to check on your child when the set time is up.

4. Talk to your partner first: Make sure that you both agree with what’s going on. Work out what role each of you will play – for example, helping with resettling or timing the intervals.

6. Avoid important commitments: Clear your schedule for the first few days after you start controlled comforting. You need to be able to see it through without a major change to your child’s routine.


How much time will I wait

Set your own intervals of time based on how long you think you can manage: For some children, frequent checking is good – say 2, then 4, 6, 8, then 10 minutes. For others, less check- ing is best – say 5, then 10, 15, 20, then 25 minutes.


Step by step

First, establish a consistent and positive bedtime routine, see the Good Sleep Habits for ideas. Also, decide on the waiting times between checks that are best for you and your child.

    • When it is time, settle your child in bed, say “goodnight” and leave the room before your child is asleep. Promise to come back and check on him.
    • Stay out of the bedroom and give your child a chance to settle by herself. Ignore grizzling.
    • If your child starts to really cry, wait the first time interval you have decided (e.g. 2 minutes) before Checking your child (see below).
    • After leaving the room, again give your child a chance to settle by herself.
    • If she again starts to cry, wait for the second time interval (e.g. 4 minutes) before going to check her.
    • Continue to check on your child as long as she is upset, gradually stretching the interval times.

Bedtime Fading

If your child is taking more than an hour to fall asleep after your chosen bedtime, you may find that trying to put your child to bed at the earlier time results in bedtime struggles. For some children it is best to gradually make their bedtime earlier, starting at the time they are naturally tired and ready for bed.


Setting a suitable bedtime

A good strategy for changing your child’s bedtime is Bedtime Fading:

  1. Work out when your child is naturally falling asleep and set this as the temporary bedtime. For example, if you want your child to go to bed at 8:30pm, but they usually do not fall asleep until 10:00pm, choose 10:00pm as the temporary bedtime.

  2. Once they are falling asleep easily and quickly at this temporary bedtime then make their bedtime earlier by 15 minutes.

  3. When they are falling asleep easily and quickly at this new bedtime then bring it forward by another 15 minutes.

  4. Keep on doing this until you have reached the bedtime you want (for example, 8:30pm).

Eg, Mawsons bedtime

fading-chart

Get morning light

Morning light also helps set an earlier bedtime and helps keep the body clock on the right track. Open the curtains in the bedroom, eat breakfast in a sunny area, or spend some time outdoors.


Be consistent

Keep trying for a number of nights, and encourage others caring for your child to use the same strategies. Being consistent will increase your chances of success with improving your child’s sleep patterns.

Scroll to Top