There are many reasons that bedtime is terrifying for a child. Darkness, monsters, night terrors, nightmares, separation anxiety – the list of possibilities can seem daunting to a new parent. It is incredibly easy to give up and allow your child to stay awake until he is too tired to resist sleep any longer. However, building good sleep habits when children are young is not only one of the best things a parent can do for their child’s health, but it also helps to ensure that children will be successful in school later. According to a random sampling of kindergarten teachers surveyed, 10% of all kindergarten students fall asleep in class (www.med.umich.edu). Here’s a quick guide to the most common bedtime menaces, and more importantly, excellent tips from experts on the best ways to tackle the perils of nighttime.
1. Night terrors. Night terrors are very different than nightmares. Night terrors typically happen within the first few hours of falling asleep, when a child reaches the deepest stage of sleep before REM sleep kicks in (www.nightterrors.org). Night terrors are abstract snapshots that cause fear and are most common among children between the ages of three and five. Whereas children will remember a nightmare after waking, they will not remember the subject of a night terror. A child will typically wake up screaming. There is no cure for night terrors, they will usually just go away. It is perfectly safe to wake a child when they are having a night terror, and the best thing to do is just hug the child and reassure him. Don’t yell at a child when he wakes from a night terror, and keep in mind that he will be disoriented and upset for five to twenty minutes after waking.
2. Nightmares. Nightmares occur during REM sleep, and unlike night terrors, usually tell a story. Nightmares can be remembered the next day. The good thing about nightmares is that when they are properly dealt with, they can help a parent to better understand their child. The key to dealing with nightmares is a four-step approach, also called “The Four R’s” (www.athealth.com). The Four R’s consist of:
Reassurance is most important for helping the child to understand that it was just a dream, and cannot hurt them. Offering your child your shoulder to cry on after they wake from a nightmare shows your child that you love them and that they are safe. Reassuring your child after a nightmare can serve a dual purpose in helping to build a deeper bond between your child and you.
During rescripting, you are collaboratively brainstorming with your child to rewrite the nightmare. Try to give the nightmare a happy ending, or make the scary characters in the nightmare less intimidating in creative ways. For example, a two-headed monster becomes much less daunting when it is hopping along on one leg and it’s best friend just so happens to be your child’s favorite cartoon character’s best friend. Perhaps the two-headed monster (whom you can rename Fred) could take your child to his best friend’s house so that they can meet. Now the cause of the nightmare has become a hero rather than an antagonist.
Rehearsal includes coming up with ways that your child can thwart the villain in the nightmare. Act out the rescripted storyline with your child. Make it fun. Create “sets” in your living room and let your child jump around and slay the demon. Once he sees he can do it while he’s awake, he will think that slaying the demon in the nightmare is a piece of cake.
Resolution includes reminding your child of the new, fun, storylines that came from their nightmares before they go to sleep. Help your child to resolve to use his new strategies after he falls asleep.
3. Fear of the Dark. It is normal for toddlers to begin to fear the dark around two or three, when cognitive abilities develop. Quakeroatmeal.com suggests adding a night-light, searching for monsters and securing the bedroom before lights out, and not watching violent television, especially before bed. One interesting suggestion is to comfort your child, but don’t overdo it. It is always a good thing to cuddle your child and to whisper comforting words. However, if you give your child too much of that, he may begin to think that there really is something to be worried about.
4. Separation Anxiety. Again, this is a very normal stage that babies and toddlers experience. When your child feels separation anxiety before bed, the best thing to do is to give your child some much-needed cuddle time. Spend extra time nurturing and having fun in the hour before bedtime. At bedtime, read a story and sit with your child for a few minutes. Tuck your child in to bed slowly. Do not, however, stay in your child’s bedroom until he falls asleep. This only exacerbates the problem (www.babycenter.com).
Sometimes, the symptoms are so slight that it is easy to miss them. Sleep deprivation is not only unhealthy for a child, it is usually the biggest way that these fears manifest themselves in your child’s daytime routine. The most common indicators of sleep deprivation are falling asleep in the car whenever it begins to move, needing to be waken almost every morning instead of waking naturally, seeming irritable, cranky, overtired, aggressive, overemotional, or hyperactive, and “crashing” much earlier than the usual bedtime on some nights (www.med.umich.edu). If you detect any of these symptoms, chances are good that one of the above fears isn’t too far behind.
Many of a child’s fears center around nighttime, but the recurring theme for curing your child of these fears is one of love. Cuddling and showing your child that he is loved and cared for is the best medicine to cure most of the common fears that children experience. However, always talk with your doctor when things don’t seem right.
NOTE: I wrote this a few years ago, when my older son was having night terrors. Now that I am having a hard time getting my younger son to sleep in his own room, I pulled it back out and thought I’d share. Funny how these things come back around! If you are dealing with this stuff for the first time, please know- this too shall pass. 🙂