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Midnight Monsters? Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our 3 ½-year-old takes all our energy at bedtime. We have a routine of reading books to him after he’s in pajamas but now he seems to need more. He whimpers, cries, then screams that he’s scared of things in his room – a book, a stuffed animal, a toy that is all of a sudden “scary”. We did have a bad experience with the smoke alarm going off one night, so sometimes he says he is scared of that. He says he doesn’t want to close his eyes because he’ll see things he doesn’t like.

After all the fussing he eventually falls asleep and sleeps through, so if he’s having bad dreams, at least they’re not waking him up.

Sleep, Baby, Sleep

Dear SBS,

It may be small comfort for you to know that this is a normal behavior of three-year-olds. Even so, it’s very disruptive to the day’s end to have him crying and stalling at bedtime.

Normal Sleep Regression

If your child has recently given up his afternoon nap he may be tired earlier in the evening and therefore he’s cranky and uncooperative at his former bedtime. If this is the case, start your routine of pajamas and stories a half hour earlier, with a couple more books if he’s still awake enough to enjoy them.

Normal emotional development is another explanation. A child’s view of the world expands greatly at this age, giving him experiences that may be unsettling. At age two, he mostly dealt with experiences and objects in his immediate world. He was angry that there was no more blueberry yogurt, but this was soon forgotten when you presented him with another food. At three, his disappointment might linger for the rest of the day. His memory is also expanding. Rather than getting over negative emotions quickly he may transfer his unsettled feelings to everyday objects in his room. A friend refused to share a toy at preschool which made him feel powerless. This feeling could persist to the evening when it’s natural to feel a bit vulnerable – in the dark at a low point of the day’s energy. Suddenly a shadow on the wall looks threatening.  

A truly frightful experience, such as the shocking blast of the smoke alarm, will be remembered for weeks or longer. This emotional memory could easily resurface on a bad day. Maybe the teddy bear looks like a hungry grizzly to him because a nature video he saw left him feeling nervous about a possible encounter. The video took place in the woods; there are woods near his house; three-year-old logic merges the locations and voilà! a grizzly attack is imminent. Panic!

You’ve probably noticed the amazing strides your child’s imagination has taken in the last six months or so. Pretend play is likely the bulk of his daytime activity – playing “family” with a doll or stuffed animal, constructing a castle or garage with his blocks, digging in the dirt or sand to design a highway system, acting out the plot of a beloved story. Imagination is what allows him to “see” monsters under his bed or in his closet when his eyes are closed. Imagination turns the sound of a branch gently brushing against the house on a windy night into Godzilla trying to come in the window. (Even if he’s never seen a Godzilla movie!)

Fortunately, most three-year-old bedtime fears exist for only a few weeks.  As he experiences inevitable “monsters” in his daily life, you can expect a return of imaginary beasts at bedtime. The key is to support him in gaining skills to tame those that he can and to reestablish a workable bedtime routine.


Pay close attention, and ask for reports from other caregivers, so you can address any unsettling experiences way before bedtime. If you haven’t had a chance before dinnertime, use this as an opportunity to review the day’s ups and downs. If your pre-bedtime routine includes a calming warm bath, this is another good time to talk about the day’s troubles and decide on what to do better if they come along again. (Example, a playmate hoarding a toy).

Talk with your son earlier in the day about what the bedtime routine is. Maybe play it out with one of his stuffed animals or baby dolls. Also during daylight hours, read a book or two about monsters. That’s right, indulge in the fantasy that monsters are real. But with your child snuggled on your lap, with daylight streaming into the room, enjoying the illustrations and the ultimate triumph over fear that each of these books conveys: 

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley

Bedtime for Monsters by Ed Vere

Good Night Little Monster by Helen Ketterman

Monster Trouble by Lane Frederickson

Monster in the Night by Kat Michels

The Monster Under Your Bed is Just a Story in Your Head by Lisa Wimberger

The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone

Once you get to pajamas, a satisfying bedtime routine is going to take at least a half hour of a parent’s undivided attention. Let your son choose a consistent number of books each night (2, 3, or 4, depending on what works best to help him unwind and drift off.) Use your words and actions to convey closeness and care as you help him change into his bedclothes. You love him. You’re proud of him. You’re so happy to have him in your life. You might decide together on tomorrow’s outfit, with conversation about what the day will include. Dim the lights. Lower your voice. You can address any possible “fears” by checking for the monsters, sternly telling them to “be gone!” Now read his chosen books under the soft light of your cell phone. Sing a lullaby or turn on quiet music.

This Too Shall Pass

Eventually your child does fall asleep. There’s no harm in staying in the room until he does. If you invest in a comforting bedtime routine you are addressing his feelings of vulnerability. Yes, children crave attention, but this is because it is a normal human need.

They need to know that a loving adult will protect them from scary monsters, no matter what form they take.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, January 30: Temperament Differences; February 13: Why do Children Misbehave?; February 27: Effective Discipline Techniques.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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