Recently, my 3 year old has been having some sleep troubles. While he won't say that he's afraid of something, thinks there are monsters hiding under his bed, or trolls in his closet, he's obviously anxious about being alone in the dark. As a Signing Smart kid, though, he's been able to articulate quite a bit to help us determine the problem. Now, Mommy and Daddy have our detective hats on once again - not to decipher language, but to determine and solve the root of the problem.
It started off with what seemed like stalling going to bed. He'd act silly brushing his teeth, pretend he didn't know how to put PJ pants on, mull over every book we owned before choosing a bedtime story....that sort of thing. A few nights later, though, he insisted on having his lamp left on. Then he'd wake in the middle of the night crying over and over for Mommy or Daddy. Once his cries for help were heard and responded to, he'd request something simple like turning a light on, retrieving a dropped stuffed animal, or the chance to say goodnight to whichever parent didn't read to him that night.
We tried the things we knew to reduce his night time fears: avoided any scary things we could - books, TV, things in the store (not always an easy task during Halloween!), allowed him to sleep with his lamp on when requested, gave him a child's flashlight, encouraged his choice of a stuffed animal to snuggle with ("Hold him tight, and keep each other safe" would be Daddy's message.), but nothing seemed to really do the trick.
Sleeping with the light on seemed to alleviate whatever fears our kiddo was facing, but left him still tired and grumpy in the morning. Attempting to turn the light off after he was already asleep was never a success. We were frustrated for our growing boy! That's when we started doing a little more research online and talking with our own parents about what to try next.
What we learned about nightmares:
- It's likely we were dealing with nightmares which happen during the second half of the night when dreams tend to be more intense. (Sometimes similar-looking night terrors tend to occur earlier in the night.)
- Nightmares are part of normal development. As children’s imaginations develop and children begin to understand that there are things that exist that can hurt them.
- By about preschool age, kids begin to understand that a nightmare is only a dream — and that what's happening isn't real and can't hurt them. Knowing that doesn't prevent them from feeling scared, though!
- No one knows exactly what causes nightmares.
- Most times nightmares occur for no apparent reason. Other times they happen when a child is experiencing stress or change. ( We found that even a minor change like our recent addition of a box spring to Mr. I.'s "big boy bed" can be enough to invite nightmares.)
- Themes of a nightmare tend to reflect whatever the child is going through at that age.
We were re-assured by the number of things we were doing right:
- Go to your child as quickly as possible.
- Assure her that you are there and will not let anything harm her.
- Allow her to keep a light on if it makes her feel better.
- Once your child is ready, encourage her to go back to sleep.
- Have him stay in his bed. Don't encourage your child to get out of bed. He should stay in bed and find out for himself that he really is safe so that he can learn to overcome his fears
- Maintain a regular bedtime and wake-up time.
- Follow a bed-time routine that helps your child slow down, and feel safe and secure as they drift off to sleep. (We always brush teeth, read stories, then turn on "Kenny G. Frog" and instrumental music before final kisses and "goodnights.")
We also came across some suggestions we hadn't thought of yet:
- Hang a dream catcher over your child’s bed which helps catch the “bad dreams”
- . You might be able to make the pretend monsters disappear with a dose of pretend monster spray. Go ahead and check the closet and under the bed, reassuring your child that all's clear.
- Label what's happened
- Help your child become attached to a "security item" such as a stuffed animal or blanket he can keep in bed with him.
What did we do with all this new-found information?
*Talk to your doctor if nightmares often prevent your child from getting enough sleep or if they occur along with other emotional or behavioral troubles.