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NIGHTMARES

I get lots of questions from parents about sleep. A big subset of these questions has to do with nightmares. A sample question: “Our 3-year-old son has started waking up crying in the middle of the night. He seems frightened but sometimes I think he just wants attention. My wife thinks we should go to him every time because he’s having a nightmare. I think this may teach him the way to get our attention in the middle of the night is to scream.”

Parents need their sleep but if your child wakes up frightened, go to him. That’s a parent’s job.

There is no question that a bright child quickly learns how to get parental attention. But parents can just as quickly learn the difference between a frightened child and a manipulative one.

A scream means a bad dream. A child this age isn’t clever enough to fake a scream. Crying or whining noises from the bedroom mean “I’m awake and bored and I want my parents to come in here and entertain me.”

A nightmare is a scary dream that wakes the child up. Nightmares occur when the child is in deep sleep, the stage of sleep when dreaming takes place. This means nightmares occur in the middle of the night after the child has been asleep for a while. Crying for attention usually happens soon after the child is put to bed.

After a nightmare, the young child wakes up suddenly, begins crying for the parents or runs to find the parents. Although the child may be sleepy because it’s in the middle of the night, there is no question that the child is AWAKE and SCARED.

Depending on the age and verbal skills of the child, the child tries to tell you about the scary dream. Very young children may only say one word, “Monster!” or “Dog!”

Older children may describe the dream in detail. Many preschoolers, who are fuzzy about the boundaries between dreams and reality, may keep pointing to the closet and insist that the monster is still there.

Scary dreams reflect what is happening to the child during the day. They are common in preschoolers because young children go through monumental emotional conflicts in the process of growing up. And they have not yet learned how to deal with these strong emotional feelings.

Childhood is not as idyllic as we like to think. Young children worry about lots of things. They worry about being separated from their parents. If a sibling arrives they worry about losing parental love and attention to the new baby. They wonder if they will ever be able to do what their parents expect them to do in the toilet. They don’t know what to do with their strong sexual or aggressive impulses. They have major fears about monsters, dogs, the dark, doctors.

How should parents handle nightmares? REASSURANCE, REASSURANCE, REASSURANCE. When you hear your child cry in fright in the middle of the night, go to him quickly, turn on the light (even if the room is already dimly lit), and soothingly tell him you are there and won’t let anything bad happen.

Keep your voice calm and soothing. Hold him close or rock him in your arms. Keep repeating you won’t let anything bad happen. Tell the child, “That was a bad dream that scared you but you’re OK.”

Encourage your child to tell you about the dream. Don’t prompt or second guess his unconscious mind. Rather ask, “Can you tell me what the dream was about?”

It’s good for the child to talk about the dream even if he starts shaking or crying. Your presence is reassuring and talking about scary feelings is about the only way to deal with them when you are young and it’s the middle of the night.

If your preschooler insists that the monster is still there, show him that no monster is around. Sometimes this situation calls for big-time monster-busting. A good device is a spray bottle with a harmless solution. You can add water to an almost empty bottle of cologne so the smell lingers to work its magic.

After the child is calm, encourage him to go back to sleep. The next day remind him about the dream and encourage him to talk about it, draw a picture of the monster, etc.

If your child does not seem frightened when he cries at night, wait to see if he falls back to sleep on his own. If he continues to cry go in his room for a brief moment. Tell him, “Everybody wakes up sometimes. You can play quietly in your bed until you’re sleepy again.” Then leave expecting him to go back to sleep on his own. Children behave best when we expect them to.

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