Past Questions
Bedtime Crying

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.

Please help.
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.

Dear Andrew:

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, 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 some clues.

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 grief.

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



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