Q: My 6-year-old wakes up at night saying he hears monster and ghosts in his room and ends up sleeping in our bed. I've tried to help him get rid of the monsters without success. I want to get him out of our bedroom. Any ideas?
A: Nighttime fears are a common childhood problem. We agree sleeping in the parents' room is not a good, long-term solution. Your son's fears of monsters and ghosts are normal at this age, but they are not rational. Therefore, reasoning will not expel them.
There are a number of things you can do to help. Make his late evening as calm and reassuring as possible. Violent and frightening games, TV programs and stories should be avoided.
Close the blinds on his room windows in the late afternoon, before he has an opportunity to look out into the darkness. Spend some happy family time with him in his well-lighted room, so it doesn't carry a lonely image for him. Let him know that you lock the house doors when you are sleeping.
If your son seems troubled at bedtime, go with him hand-in-hand to each worrisome area of the room and make a show of being a powerful parent chasing away all frightening things. Allow him to keep the door open as he falls asleep. Some children are reassured by having soft music playing as they fall asleep. And some parents have found that running a cool mist vaporizer all night not only helps relieve stuffy noses, but also provides a constant background noise that covers up odd sounds children misinterpret.
Any combination of these tricks may help, but he may still appear in your room frightened. If you are harsh with him, he will only become more susceptible because you are his only source of comfort and reassurance.
Even though it is very difficult to drag yourself out of bed, one of you should get up and go back to his room with him and sit at his bedside for a few minutes. No monster can survive the presence of a parent. If you do this patiently and consistently, staying for a briefer time on each night you are needed, he will eventually learn to calm himself without your coming.
Dr. Wilson is director of pediatric primary care of the Johns
Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.