You’d think we’d be prepared for this phase of sleep disturbance, as little M had the same phase not even three years ago. But it’s funny how quickly we forget. Little T is very soon 3 years old (how did that happen?!), and sleep did not come easy the first 18 months of his life. But then, suddenly, something ‘clicked’, and he started going to bed very happily and had a great night’s sleep most nights. That’s probably why we were taken by surprise now, lulled as we were into undisturbed nights….
At nearly 3, he has very clearly entered a phase where his imagination is incredibly active. In many ways, this makes things even more exciting for him and his pretend play is hilarious to listen to. What he’s less impressed with, is how vivid his fantasy world is at night! He often wakes up from his dreams, sometimes easily comforted by a quick cuddle, other times so terrified that at first he’s not even certain where he is or who (or what) is in the room.
Two night ago he woke up late in the evening, and very unusually found it very difficult to nod off again. He kept crying for us, mostly because he just wanted to make sure we were nearby. Eventually huge yawns turned in to sleep, and we thought that would be that until the morning. But then I wake up by a loud scream, adrenaline driving me super quickly up the stairs, and reaching his bed he literally jumped into my arms. He was shaking with fear and kept looking into
his bed, convinced something had been in there with him. We spent a long time together talking about dreams, how they’re really only “pictures in our heads”, and then we had the scary ones fly out the window. It took a while to convince little T that there were in fact no monsters in his bed, and no, none of the things in his room have big teeth or eyes. Everything is just as lovely and safe as always. Bless his cotton socks, he now talks through it all before he goes to sleep: “they are only pictures in my head” and “Mmmmm, this bed is so niiiice” (working hard to convince himself). And then he pulls his cuddly dog a little bit closer.
Young children commonly develop fears which often come out at bedtime. It can include a fear of the dark, thinking there’s a monster in the corner wardrobe or under the bed, fear of flies or bees (or both), and being left behind by parents. Little T is definitely not very happy with us going anywhere without him these days, and wants reassurance “Don’t go very far”. And evidently he worries a bit about monsters too.
What’s clear to us is that there is no point in trying to convince him that something is not real, as at his age the line between fantasy and reality can be very blurry indeed. The best thing we can do is help him find ways to cope with it all and feel safe enough to go back to sleep.
How you can help your child with fears and nightmares
1. A positive and calming bedtime routine
Having a lovely, soothing routine is reassuring for children as it provides predictability and a sense of security. It means quality time together by curling up with a good book, having a little song or just chatting about the day. Having the same activities roughly at the same time every day helps calm body and mind, preparing for a peaceful night’s sleep. A routine doesn’t need to be more elaborate than including a few enjoyable activities, such as bath + massage + story, or bath + chat + story. (A little note: during times of many nightmares and vivid imagination, choose books that don’t have scary characters or monsters, or ones with happy endings).
2. Your reassurance and comfort
After a nightmare, you are the “safe harbour” and will help restore calm just by being there. Recent research has highlighted that when parents ensure they are emotionally available this can reduce sleep disruptions and promote a good sleep. Being emotionally available means paying attention to cues your child is giving you, and responding appropriately.
Remember that the fear is very real for your child. Be sensitive but confident, as you are role modeling responses and beliefs. Accept the fear, talk about how you can see why something seems scary, and then talk about how everything is safe, in a way that is understandable for your little one. Talking about dreams just being pictures in our heads can be useful. Little T feels reassured by it as it tells him the dreams aren’t real.
Night terrors can be a scary experience – for you as well! Your child will be distressed and may cry or scream, but is not awake or aware of what is going on. This means it’s difficult to help your little one, who may not even want to be held during this. All you can do is stay close until things have calmed. It could also be that your child only wakes up very briefly and wants to be tucked in and go back to sleep. Our little M used to experience night terrors, and the first time was terrifying for us as she was screaming, bashing about on the floor, and only seemed more terrified if we tried to hold her. Then, all of a sudden, she was wide awake, looked at us in surprise (why are you in my room?), and was happy (but exhausted) just going back to bed…..she had no memory of any of it!
3. For older children, work with the fantasy
When you can talk about the nightmares, you can help your child take control over what happened in the dream and what they would like to happen next time. They can make up a different ending to their dream that is happier, and make up what they want to happen in their dreams next time. This gives happier thoughts for going back to sleep, and reduces their fear of the same nightmare happening again. It also focuses on the positive side, that these dreams mean they have great imagination.
You can also use your child’s imagination and fantasy world to encourage finding a playful solution to getting rid of something scary. “How would you chase away this monster?”, “What super powers do you have that makes sure no dragon ever wants to come here?”, or “when scary dreams and pictures come into your mind, just blow a chilling wind at them so they disappear out the window”. Or perhaps they can imagine the scary creatures doing silly things or wearing funny clothes. Some children really like dream catchers too, near their bed or window.
3. Some Practical Thougths
- During a phase when your child has a lot of nightmares, a subtle night light can be comforting so that familiar surroundings are visible straight away after a bad dream. Waking up scared in the dark can make the experience even scarier.
- Many children choose a favourite fluffy toy or blanket early on anyway, and this can be a big help for calming and providing a sense of security.
- Allow your little one to help decide how they prefer to sleep: such as whether the door should be shut, open or slightly ajar; curtains a bit open or black out blinds; which way to position the bed.
- Ensure your child gets sufficient sleep, to help reduce likelihood of night mares and night terrors. Bedtime routine, relaxation and no TV the last hour before sleep are all helpful for peaceful and sufficient rest.
- Breathing properly helps the body calm down and reduce anxiety. Help your child by focusing on breathing with them, deeply in and out, making sure they use their tummy rather than chest and shoulders. You can also hold a hand lightly on your child’s tummy and talk about how there are no scary thoughts or images in the tummy, just calm breathing. Counting can really help calm them too, providing focus and also helping breathing. These things have really helped little M, who is very sensitive, reflects a lot, and has a vivid imagination.
Children can experience nightmares during stressful times such as moving house, moving school, having a sibling, and other family changes. In these cases, of course, your child would first and foremost need help to sort through their feelings and reactions to what is going on – not just help to deal with the nightmares.
The most important thing is to be understanding and sensitive to your child’s fears and nightmares. Thinking back, you may remember having your own fears and bad dreams. In fact, it looks like lots of dreaming, and sleep walking in particular, runs in the family!
What are your experiences and what have you found helps your child? We’d love to hear from you.
Love & sweet dreams,