3 to 5 Year Preschooler Sleep

The world can be a scary place. The world when the lights go out? Downright terrifying.

Anxiety is apprehension without apparent cause. Preschoolers commonly develop anxieties to things that aren’t based in reality. Monsters. Ghosts. The neighbour’s cuddly cat. There’s no actual immediate threat, but the perceived danger feels so real.

“Fight or flight”

While few of us actually enjoy being scared, fear serves an incredibly important function in our well-being. The fear response alerts us to potential dangers. Snakes, spiders, being alone, strangers – these are all elements in our environment that could cause us harm.

Evolution’s solution to cope with these threatening stimuli is to prepare the body to either stand up and be brave or run. The heart racing, the rapid breathing, the heightened alertness. Fight or flight. In essence this evoked fear response helps keep you focused on the perceived threat and ready to react safely.

Survival Instinct

Not surprisingly, these anxieties tend to creep up riiiight when you are ready to turn out your child’s light and go get yourself a glass of wine. Because although the anxiety is usually completely irrational, it is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. It’s survival instinct.

Bedtime is one of the only times that your child will find himself alone in the dark. And despite the five-star safety rating of his bedroom, he instinctually feels the intense vulnerability of this state. Before we were able to block the world out by erecting four walls around us, humans had to be on the lookout for top predators if we wanted to avoid being eaten.

And this became very difficult for us to do after the sunset. Our eyes are not equipped with natural night vision and our senses can leave us quite disoriented when we cannot see our surroundings. Traveling and sleeping in groups was an effective way to remain vigilant round-the-clock, as community members could swap out night watch duty.

If alone, the best you could do would be to burrow, making yourself as small as possible, and hope the lurking eyes in the darkness did not spot you.

Coping Strategies

Have you suddenly found yourself running to the rescue of your screaming child only to find her hiding under her covers tucked up tight in the corner of the bed? The combination of preschoolers’ incredible, yet often irrational, imagination and an innate fear of the dark is almost universally the recipe for mild anxieties surrounding bedtime at this stage of life. And though completely normal, and actually a great survival mechanism, it can be awfully upsetting to both you and your child.

Here are a few things you can exercise to help your child cope with newfound fears/anxieties:

No matter how trivial or irrational the fear seems, it is very real to your child. Acknowledge the fear with your child, talk about it, do not belittle it. Casting it aside and calling it out as ridiculous (regardless of your good intentions) may actually work against you by serving to make your child feel isolated.

You can try phrases like “I can see how this is very upsetting to you. I’m here for you. You are not alone” and then strategize ways with your child to help her overcome her fear.

No matter how trivial or irrational the fear seems, it is very real to your child. Acknowledge the fear with your child, talk about it, do not belittle it. Casting it aside and calling it out as ridiculous (regardless of your good intentions) may actually work against you by serving to make your child feel isolated.

You can try phrases like “I can see how this is very upsetting to you. I’m here for you. You are not alone” and then strategize ways with your child to help her overcome her fear.

Don’t promote the fear through avoidance. For example, if your child is afraid of monsters in their closet (wink wink), don’t simply close the closet door and exclaim “let’s just not look in there” or “let’s just shut them away then”. This will only reinforce its negative association. Instead, try to engage with the fear in a supportive and gentle way.

Using a rating scale can be very effective at de-escalating the intensity of a fear. Older children may use the classic 10-point scale to rate how intense the fear is to them. Younger children may instead rate how full of fear they are: up to their knees, tummy, or head, for example.

Once rated, your child may be able to better visualize how much the fear is affecting her, and you can help her to come up with ways to gradually bring the intensity down – perhaps offering a nightlight or other comfort item.

Help your child to confront the fear by teaching her relaxation techniques (deep breathing and visualization) and then safe ways to approach the fear once she is feeling calm. Reinforce your connection by being her “safety net” as she gradually gets closer to the feared place or object – she can return to you whenever she needs if the anxiety begins to resurface.

Provide your child with agency in overcoming the fear by encouraging statements like “I can do this” or “I am strong”, and by engaging in imaginative play (e.g., her room is surrounded by a magical force field that only lets in fun/good/safe entities). 

Help your child to confront the fear by teaching her relaxation techniques (deep breathing and visualization) and then safe ways to approach the fear once she is feeling calm. Reinforce your connection by being her “safety net” as she gradually gets closer to the feared place or object – she can return to you whenever she needs if the anxiety begins to resurface.

Provide your child with agency in overcoming the fear by encouraging statements like “I can do this” or “I am strong”, and by engaging in imaginative play (e.g., her room is surrounded by a magical force field that only lets in fun/good/safe entities). 

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