Things That Go Bump in the Night

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In the wee hours of the night, you hear your little one yelp from down the hall. You pad over to her room, scoop her up, and comfort her. She’s confused and can’t say exactly what happened or what she was dreaming about. You give her a sip of water and tell her there’s nothing to be afraid of, but she wants you there and can’t get comfortable again without you. Sound familiar?

Nightmares are common, affecting at least half of young children. They can start at any point in development: even little babies likely have dreams both good and bad, since they spend roughly 50 percent of their sleep time in REM, or dream sleep. But frequent nightmares usually crop up around age three, when children have more advanced imaginations, an awareness that bad things can happen, and the language to tell us about their scary mid-night tales. For the most part, nightmares are a natural part of child development and don’t signify anything worrisome. They tend to increase in frequency until roughly age six, and decrease after age 10.

If you have a spooked toddler or preschooler in your house, here’s how you can help her send the boogieman on his way:

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Comfort her: First and foremost, if your child is afraid, go to her. Pat her, rub her back, tuck her in, or give her a hug. Stroke her head, give her a comforting lovie, and tell her in a soft-but-confident voice that everything is okay.

Empower her: The trick to bad-dream management is to calm your little one, while also giving her tools to soothe herself and feel a sense of control over her own fears. Talk with her about what she can do if she has a bad dream. For example:

  • Tell her that when she feels afraid, she can hug her stuffed animal or her lovie. Be specific and practice this before bed: “Okay, squeeze bear like this if you need him.” Give her stuffed animal 10 kisses and 10 hugs (or whatever number makes sense) before bed or after a nightmare and tell her, “Bear has all mommy’s kisses and hugs now, so if you need them, you have them right here.”
  • Practice the skill of replacing bad thoughts with good ones. Brainstorm with your child a happy story that she can tell herself when she has a nightmare or feels scared of her room at night. Maybe it’s the memory of a birthday party or a family trip; tell her that if she focuses on telling herself this story and seeing it in her mind, it will push out the scary thoughts
  • In her book Sleeping Through the Night, sleep expert Jodi Mindell suggests telling your child that if she flips over her pillow it will “change the channel on the dream.”
  • Talk about your own coping skills: “You know what mommy does when I’m feeling scared? I pull my covers up, tuck my blanket up around my chin, and I tell myself a story about when we were all at the beach and we dug that big hole, until I fall asleep.”

Process the stories: Some kids are tight-lipped about their nightmares. This could be because they truly don’t remember them, they’re overwhelmed by the emotion and unable to think logically enough to talk, or they simply don’t want the dreams rehashed. If your child doesn’t want to tell you about her dreams, don’t push. If you want to open up conversation, talk about your own dreams instead. Tell your child about dreams both good and bad (but not too bad) that you’ve had and how you handled them.

If your little one is up for talking, that’s great. You can ask about the dream in the middle of the night, chat about it at breakfast, or suggest drawing pictures of the dream and even crumpling the pictures up and throwing them away (another possible way for your child to feel empowered).

Don’t argue that it’s all pretend: Dreams feel very real to children, so don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince your child that her nightmare didn’t happen. If she insists that something unsettling occurred — for example, that the elevator door closed on you or that she got left behind somewhere (common kid-dream material), tell her once or twice: “I’m so sorry sweetheart, that sounds like it was a bad dream. Mommy would never leave you like that in real life.” But if she insists it really happened, just stick with: “Wow, that sounds really scary. What happened next? Oh wow, well I’m so glad that now we’re all here together.”

State the facts: It can help to state reality as a way to calm and ground your child. For example, if she calls you into the room saying she’s scared of the dark or the shadows in her room, you could say something like, “You’re in your room with all your toys and all your stuffed animals. Light comes in and makes dark patches called shadows. Mommy is right outside.” Talk about this during the day and experiment with how shadows are created.

Stick with the routine: The hardest part of handling nightmares is to soothe your child without creating new sleep patterns. If you don’t want to co-sleep (or sleep on her floor), for example, comfort her in her room and when she’s calm, go back to your room. Not only does this keep new habits from forming, it sends your child the message that she really is okay and you know she will be alright in her own sleep space.

Remember that your child looks to you for cues about whether she’s capable of sleeping on her own; you want to send the signal that her own room is indeed safe and comfy, and that you’re confident in her. Yes, nightmares will happen, but we can use our trusty tricks to make them go away, snuggle back up under the covers with blankie and bear, and drift back off to a peaceful sleep.

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