It’s Not All Mary Poppins


“Mommy, Daddy, can I sleep with you? I had a bad dream.”

If you have a child over the age of three or so (and you don’t co-sleep!), you’ve probably heard these words a time or three. Though your child has been having dreams all along – in fact, REM sleep has been detected in infants at 28 weeks’ gestation – it is between the ages of 3 and 5 that children report the most nightmares. This has to do with their increased imagination and their increasing awareness of the world around them, which bring with them an increase in fears. Suddenly, masks are scary, there are monsters under the bed, wolves in the closet, and that shadow cast by the lamp is a bear… The fears often creep into their sleep, and nightmares begin.

When I was two or so, I am told, my mother was woken one night by my screams of terror. When she asked what was wrong, all I could manage in my disoriented state was incoherent babbling about a “big bunny”. Apparently, when you’re two or so, vicious killer bunnies are a Big Deal.

Generally speaking, a parent’s natural response – to cuddle, soothe, comfort – is the correct one. Sometimes you may opt to lift the covers and let them snuggle with your comforting body; other nights, you may decide to walk them back to their own bed.

Parents get concerned when the nightmares occur night after night. If I let him in bed every time, am I creating a habit I don’t want to maintain? Is she really having that many nightmares, or am I being had? But what if I don’t comfort, and he is truly frightened…?

This is where parents get creative. A little scent in a spray bottle of water makes great anti-monster spray, which I’ve used to protect against bad dreams – sprayed in the room before bed, it often helps a child get to bed without fear. Dreamcatchers are nice, too. Some parents put a flashlight on the bedside table. Though these help a child get to sleep, none really keep a child in their bed.

Which still leaves us with the conundrum: how do I support my child in the night without either allowing myself to be taken advantage of or creating an unwelcome habit?

Here’s a thought, used with my own children. I am sure it’s been thought of before, but it was new to me when I thought of it.

At first, I just moved over so they could sleep with me. It’s the simplest way to give instant comfort – but it meant a light, restless sleep for me, and after a couple of weeks of three times a week, I was tired. And I also had the sneaking suspicion I might just be being had…

At this point, I created a “bad dream bed”. I took the old crib mattress, made it up nicely, and put it on the floor by my side of the bed. When a child felt the need of reassurance, they could trot in and lay down. Often I’d wake enough to drop a hand over the side of the bed and pat their back, but sometimes I wouldn’t know until I got up in the morning and discovered the little body in the wee bed.

There was a period where, I am quite sure, the novelty of being allowed carte blanche access to mom and dad’s room was taken advantage of. But, did it matter? I was sleeping, the child was sleeping – everyone is happy! After two or three weeks, the frequency tapered off, but the option of night-time comforting was always available.

I can’t remember how long the Bad Dream Bed stayed in my bedroom. Probably a few months. Eventually, when a month or more had gone by without it being used, it was put away.

But for each of my three kids, the Bad Dream Bed made its reappearance and fulfilled its noble duty – comforted frightened children, and allowed everyone a good night’s sleep.

How about you? How have you weathered the nightmare ride?

January 23, 2007 Posted by | parenting, sleep | 21 Comments