Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Halloween isn't the only holiday that includes people dressed up as characters. Christmas has Santa Claus and elves, Easter has the Easter Bunny, and the 4th of July even has Uncle Sam. Some kids love these characters and the magic that comes with believing in them. Others, well...they don't love them so much.
Early this year, I worked with a client whose daughter had previously been sleeping really well. On Christmas Eve, she pleaded at bedtime, "Please don't let Santa come into my room." That night is when her sleep troubles began. She started waking up multiple times at night, coming into her parents room wanting to sleep with them. She didn't mention being afraid of Santa during the Christmas season, but they were unable to get her sleeping back on track after that night. With Easter right around the corner, I thought it might be a good time to address how these characters can affect children's sleep and what to do about it.
Characters, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny can add excitement and magic to a childhood. They appear harmless and bring presents, candy, and money, so what's not to love, right? These three characters in particular have one thing in common: they come into your home while you're sleeping. We all know this is because WE are the characters, and we need our children to be out like a light in order for the magic to happen. Think about this for a minute. Would you, under any other circumstance, tell your child that a grown man will be breaking and entering into your home tonight while you're all sleeping? Of course not, that could be scary! We hope the magic of these characters will mask the creepiness of what they do. For many children, it does. Yet for others, it opens the door to bigger questions and worries. Young children may have a hard time expressing a feeling like fear. So how do you know if your child is afraid of these characters, and what should you do about it?
Signs of Character Fear
The obligatory holiday photo can certainly show signs of fear. However, a baby or young toddler is not old enough to fully understand the complexity of what these characters do. Sure, they may be afraid of being handed to an unknown person in a costume, but it's unlikely this fear is causing any sleep issues at this age. If your little one is crying at this age, don't give up yet. However, if a 3-year-old is still crying during these encounters, that could be a sign of a fear bigger than just the costume itself.
Another sign of a fear is asking clarifying questions or making statements like the client I mentioned above. If a child is afraid of the Tooth Fairy, for example, he may say things like:
"So...she takes my tooth from under my pillow while I'm sleeping? Where will you be when she comes into my room?"
"What if <insert negative occurrence> happens when she comes?"
"Does the Tooth Fairy take anything else from my room?"
"NO!! Don't take my tooth out, I don't want the Tooth Fairy to come!"
If your child is more concerned about the what ifs of the character than he is excited by the magic of it, there could be a root of fear. These what ifs can certainly cause sleep troubles. Have you ever had trouble sleeping the night before a big presentation? What about after an argument with your spouse or friend that was left unresolved? The unknowns of life can keep us up at night, and children are no different. Sudden sleep issues after a character encounter could be a sign of fear.
What to do if Fear is Causing Sleep Issues
First, if you suspect fear of a character is causing your child's sleep troubles, then ask yourself if the fear is worth the magic. If your child is too afraid to sleep at night, is it really worth trying to savor some childhood magic? Instead of reassuring your child over and over that these characters are safe, maybe it's time for the truth.
I love the way my friend's family breaks the secret for their kids. When it's truth time, they explain that Santa is simply a symbol of Christmas. He represents a spirit of giving, kindness, and joy. There's not just one Santa; anyone can be a Santa by having a giving spirit and being kind to others. Parents are Santas because they like to give gifts to their children and bring them joy. This truth still allows Santa be a part of the holiday and doesn't get rid of all of the magic he brings. It also encourages them to be giving and kind, like Santa. You could spin this similarly for any holiday creature.
If you aren't ready for the truth talk with your child regarding these characters, or your child's fear is due to something else, the following tips could help solve any sleep issues resulting from these fears.
Get to the root. Try to talk to your child about what specifically he is afraid of. If he's telling you not to let Easter Bunny into his room, ask why. If you can figure out the root of his fears, you can reassure him.
Alter the story. Maybe in your house, the Tooth Fairy doesn't come into your child's room at night. Instead, you could put the tooth in a box in the living room, for example, and ask the Tooth Fairy to leave the money there. Maybe Santa could just leave the presents on the front porch and then Mom and Dad brings them in and puts them under the tree. You could still leave a plate of cookies and carrots on the porch and put footprints in the snow and all that magic jazz without Santa needing to come into your home.
Show him how the monitor works. If you use a monitor, show your child how it works. Point out the camera, or unit, in his room. Take him to another room, while someone else stays in his room. Have that person talk or dance around and show your child how you can hear/see him on the monitor. Explain that you are always watching over him, even when you're not in the room, and that you will make sure he is safe. If you don't use a monitor, you can still prove that you are able to hear him. Have someone in his room calling out for your child. Take your child into your room or the living room and talk about how well you can hear that person. Explain that you can always hear him when he needs you.
Enlist an older sibling/cousin/friend to help. Does your child have an older cousin or friend that he thinks is all that and then some? Ask that person to talk to your child about the character in a fun and exciting way. If your child sees someone he looks up to not being afraid, why should he be?
Nightmares vs. Night Terrors
These types of fears usually just cause general trouble falling asleep and/or nightmares in the middle of the night. Nightmares are usually short and cause your child to wake up, remembering what scared him. If your child is not easily woken up and is not easily calmed down, he may be having a night terror instead. Night terrors are not usually the result of any specific fear.
For more information on the difference between and how to handle night terrors, check out this post from Mom Loves Best: How to Handle Your Child's Night Terrors
We were able to get my client's daughter back to sleeping in her own room all night using some of the above tips. We didn't focus too much on that specific fear of Santa, mainly because the holiday was already over. We did work on reassuring her safety, making sure everything around her was optimal for good sleep, and then training her to stay in her own bed. It only took about a week!
What are other tips and tricks you've done to help your children get past their fears?
Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant