Q: Would you please be able to advise me on a bedtime problem I have with my 2
1/2- year- old daughter.
Up until about a week ago, our daughter Julie, had no problems with going to
bed, both my wife and I are firm believers of a good bedtime routine which was a
bath, then getting into pajamas, coming downstairs and tidying up toys, and
having a bottle of milk before one of us takes her up to her room, laying her in
her cot, kisses good night, and then being able to leave the room and shut the
door. Nine times out of ten this would work fine and Julie would sleep through
the night no problem.
About a week ago all of a sudden she started to get really upset about going to
bed and wouldn't go upstairs with one of us without kicking and screaming and
getting herself so worked up that she would even be sick. We have tried talking
to her to find out what is wrong or what is scaring her but because she doesn't
talk fully yet we can't understand her.
It has got to a stage where either my wife or I have to be in her bedroom until
she goes to sleep before we can leave the room and close the door. She does then
sleep through the night but when she wakes in the morning she starts crying and
screaming until one of us gets to the room.
We are both finding this very hard to deal with, more so my wife who suffered
quite badly during the first year of Julie's life with postnatal depression. We
don't really want her to get into any bad habits with either us having to stay
in her room or us having to have her in our room.
Many Thanks for listening, it's just nice to be able to put this down on paper
and hopefully have some of your thoughts on how to handle this situation.
I am a licensed marriage and family therapist who works extensively with
children, and I am the co-author of several of the "Positive Discipline" books.
It can be frightening when a previously happy and cooperative child begins to
have problems of the intensity Julie is experiencing. Because the change
occurred so suddenly, it makes me curious as to whether there was a specific
cause. You say that, once asleep, Julie sleeps throughout the night, so "night
terrors" don't seem to be involved. Still, disturbances in sleep patterns can
sometimes indicate neurological problems, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to check
with Julie's pediatrician to be sure that she is physically healthy.
I'm wondering whether Julie was exposed to a book, story, movie, or television
program that has frightened her. Young children have vivid imaginations, and do
not distinguish between reality and fantasy in the same way adults do. Something
you or I would dismiss as "just a story" can terrify a young child. Because
Julie is too young to verbalize her fears well, you must rely on her behavior to
give you clues. Some children learn (inadvertently) that sleep problems earn
them lots of parental attention; they enjoy this, and so learn to continue the
"problems", insisting they can't fall asleep without mommy and daddy.
Effective parenting is almost always a balance between kindness and firmness. I
believe you would benefit from reading "Positive
Discipline for Preschoolers," which includes a great deal of
information on sleep problems (if unavailable from your local bookstore, contact
www.positivediscipline.com), as well as the reasons children
sometimes behave as they do. For the moment, though, it may be wise to accept
that Julie is genuinely frightened, and to look for the root of her fears. Would
she feel more comfortable with her door open? With a night light? With soft
music playing? What would happen if you followed your bedtime routine, read her
a story and sang a song, then left? (She might cry for a while, then fall
asleep.) Sometimes, too, using your own creativity and imagination can help.
Some parents find that creating a spray bottle of "monster juice" (actually
water in a small spray bottle, decorated by the child) can give children a
"weapon" to use against their fears (and the water doesn't damage anything).
Julie might feel safer with her own small flashlight. Asking simple "what" and
"how" questions and using her body language as well as her words may give you
If none of this helps, you may be wise to contact a family therapist who is
skilled in working with children (play therapy is particularly effective). Some
children, even very young ones, do develop anxiety problems, and professional
help can minimize both the intensity and duration of the problem. If your wife
is still struggling with her postpartum depression, that, too, can affect Julie.
A consultation with a wise professional may save all of you a great deal of
Listen to your heart, to Julie, and to each other; patience and perseverance
will see you through.
Best to you,
Cheryl L. Erwin, MA, MFT
Certified Positive Discipline Associate