Fighting Off the ‘Monsters’

I remember when my son was old enough to sleep in a toddler bed. For a period of about two months, each night our son was persistent on us sleeping in his room. We would wait until we “thought” he was asleep, and quietly sneak out of his room only to find out he wasn’t completely asleep. He wasn’t sleeping well, and neither were we. We were desperately trying to figure out what had him worried. We tried night lights, soft music, complete darkness, massaging his back and more. I don’t think we ever figured out the exact cause, but it’s possible he was having nightmares.

Did you know?

Recent research suggests the following information:

• Nightmares can begin as early as age 3, when the fear of the dark is most common.

• Nightmares can lead to persistent problems as children learn to anticipate them, which can lead to anxiety and the inability to fall back asleep.

• 10-50 percent of those aged 3-6 years are estimated to suffer from nightmares that disturb their sleep, or that of their parents.

• A cross-sectional study of 4- to 12-year-olds suggests a peak prevalence between 7-9 years, with 87 percent and 95.7 percent of children retrospectively reporting bad dreams often or sometimes.

What causes nightmares?

Dreams and nightmares are one way kids process thoughts and feelings about situations they are facing. Many times, nightmares occur for no apparent reason. Other times they happen when a child is experiencing stress or change. Events or situations that might feel unsettling –moving, attending a new school, the birth of a sibling, or family tensions can result in unsettling dreams. Sometimes nightmares occur as part of a child’s reaction to trauma — such as a natural disaster, accident, or injury. For some kids, especially those with a good imagination, reading scary books or watching scary movies or TV shows just before bedtime can instigate nightmares. – kidshealth.org

Encouraging a peaceful night’s sleep

If nightmares are occurring, then chances are you or your child are not getting much sleep … which can lead to your own personal “nightmare.” Simple bedtime routines can help create a peaceful night’s sleep.

• Pick a regular bedtime and wake-up time – and stick to it!

• Calm down! Have a sleep routine that helps your child (and you) slow down, and feel safe and secure as they drift off to sleep. Might I suggest some snuggle time and reading a good book?

• Create a cozy place to sleep. A favorite toy, stuffed animal, night-light or dream catcher can help.

• Avoid scary movies, TV shows and stories before bed.

• Teach your child that nightmares aren’t real, that they’re just dreams and can’t hurt them.

Creative coping skills

Dreams and nightmares don’t have to be “all bad.” We can teach children fun and creative ways of coping with nightmares. Here’s how!

• Have fun in the dark. Make being in the dark fun by playing flashlight tag. Have a treasure hunt and search for things that glow in the dark.

• Use your imagination and be creative. Use your imagination to fight imaginary fears, like monsters. Many families have found “monster spray” to be a great way to help a child cope with bedtime fears.

• Household pets make great support. Whether it’s a dog, cat, guinea pig or a fish, kids can feel safe if they feel their pet is protecting them from what is occurring in their nightmare.

• If the nightmares are keeping your child from sleeping in their own room, create a star system. Tell him how proud you are of him/her for being brave for being brave and sleeping on their own. After earning a certain number of stars, he/she can turn them in for a treat, such as watching a favorite video, going to the park, or baking chocolate chip cookies.

• Reassure your child that you’re there. Be present and help your child feel safe and protected after waking up feeling afraid. Knowing you’ll be there helps strengthen your child’s sense of security.

• Finally, be a good listener. After the nightmare, help your child feel calm, safe, and protected, and ready to go back to sleep. Wait until morning to talk about the nightmare, if your child is comfortable and ready. By talking about it — maybe even drawing the dream or writing about it — in the daylight, many scary images lose their power. Your child might enjoy thinking up a new (more satisfying) ending to the scary dream.

Wishing you and your child a peaceful night of sleep.