Night-time issues

Are your kids afraid of the dark, having night terrors, or bed-wetting? Sharlene Poole has some good advice.

Sensitive, visual (easily distracted by things around them), and spirited children often appear confident and fine during the day, but it is at bedtime or in their sleep that they will show you how they are really coping with what is going on in their world. Symptoms like not wanting to be in the dark, sudden bed-wetting, night terrors, or separation anxiety are some of the more common things you may see in relation to bedtime.

If your child is experiencing any of these things, you need to assess your current daily routines and what your child is being exposed to (eg screen-time, TV, or DVDs, at daycare or activities). See if anything has changed – for example, are they having a change of staff at daycare, or are they watching something on TV that might be giving them night terrors? Closer to home, are there any stresses occurring? Eliminate anything that is obviously the cause or contributor, then create a step-by-step goal of gaining better settling or sleep habits over a period of time.

Fear of the dark

Some children need to be aware of their environment to feel safe and secure. If they wake in the night from a dream, it can help them to be able to see where they are and register that they are in their bedroom, in bed. Leaving the door open with a hall light on is a good way of helping them not to feel shut away and isolated from you. It’s their security, too. You could also use a night light in their bedroom, but make sure it is a low light and as dim as possible to avoid casting too much light or creating shadows.


This is incredibly common, but the reasons for it can be quite complex and require specialist help if it persists, especially once they are aged five to seven or older. By this age, most children are able to sleep through the night without needing to wee, or can get up and use the toilet in the night, rather than doing so while they are sleeping.

When you have initially potty-trained your child, however, it is quite usual for there to be regressions at night. Usually these are related to the child being overtired and therefore too tired to be woken by the desire to wee; related to stress; or because they have had too much to drink too late in the day or evening. Be aware that telling them off for wetting the bed at this age is not wise – it is better to look at how you can help and what you can change in their routine, and then encourage them with positive strategies for getting up and going to the toilet in the night, like using a reward or star chart or talking about something that you look forward to doing with them the next day. Using a waterproof sheet is great as it saves you having to strip the whole bed in the night if there’s an accident.

Heavy and active dreamers often wet their bed when dreaming and believe they are going to the toilet in the right place. This is often something they grow out of with age, positive parenting strategies like the star chart, and routine tweaks.

Night terrors

Like bed-wetting, night terrors can be a reaction to what your child is exposed to during the day, so their daily routines need to be looked at. Also, think about if they are at a stage of their development where they are teething or having a growth spurt or some kind of emotional development, where they are picking up on something from their environment which can play out when they are sleeping.

I remember one six-year-old girl who I worked with who used to wake up screaming and crying for her mum at the same time most nights (both when I babysat and when her mum was home). After this happened a few times, I figured out that what was waking her was her need to wee. She would always wake around 10-11pm and all I had to do was lift her up, while saying, “Shh, I’m just taking you for a wee,” and pop her down on the toilet. I would let her slump over my shoulder and then wait until she had had a wee, before taking her back to bed and tucking her in, where she would then sleep for the rest of the night. In this case, as mentioned above under bed-wetting, it was a matter of reducing the amount of fluid she had in the later part of the evening before bedtime, and making sure she had a wee before bedtime. As she got older, this behaviour reduced and then stopped altogether.

If night terrors are a serious, ongoing problem, you might need to talk to your doctor about the level of stress your child is experiencing from the night terrors or consult a specialist in this field.

Tips for when night terrors strike

From my experience, here are some tips for when night terrors strike:

• Try not to wake your child. Sit or stand near them and watch to see if they are awake or asleep and supervise their resettling, as they may go back to sleep on their own, without any interference.

• If they wake from a night terror and are distressed, have a dim light on so they can see where they are. Give them verbal reassurance and remind them that it’s night-time and sleep time while tucking them back in.

• As when you are settling them at bedtime, don’t use too many words and keep your visit as brief as possible, maybe just two to five minutes and no more than 10.

Extracted with permission from Toddler Whispering: 1 to 5 The Preschool Year, by Sharlene Poole (Penguin $38)

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