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


  1. what you write about so often mirrors my life! Even last night Jude woke and in a disorientated state, i cant get to sleep with him in my bed so we did what we do sometimes which is make a little bed with a couple of spare duvets and pillows and he sleeps there, (we used to have the crib mattress too until his friend was sick on it! My dad even built a lovely little bed using the bottom bit of the cot and the mattress, its now a rabbit run in the garden!)

    Comment by jenny uk | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the timing on this! Maya spent most of the night in her own bed last night (only came in for 6am snuggles), but the few nights before that were absolutely vicious. When I was single, I’d have just pulled her into my bed and gone back to sleep, but with having a husband (damn that whole power-sharing thing), the question of “am I being had” comes up often.

    The bad dream bed sounds like a good plan, but mostly, I’m just relieved to know that this is perfectly normal, if highly annoying.

    Comment by Allison | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  3. Oopsie. Forgot to correct my new site location.

    Comment by Allison | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  4. David is experiencing some bad dreams. We get up pat his back, if I get there first I offer a sip of water, then he is back to sleep. The problem with our system is last night it happened four times! Ouch.

    Comment by Peter | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  5. None of my children suffered frequently with bad dreams, although my daughter had occasional night terrors, when she didn’t fully wake up. I preferred to have them go back to sleep in their own bed if possible, so it was not associated with a nightmare the next night, so I’d get in bed with them for a cuddle until they were not afraid any longer.

    Joining us in bed wasn’t out of the question though – our middle child did co-sleep with us for a while, though he always had to go to sleep first in his own bed, he was allowed to sleep with us if he woke during the night. He and I were very comfortable together and slept peacefully. The others were more restless and therefore it wasn’t a habit I encouraged!

    Comment by z | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  6. My own daughter wasn’t much of a “bad dreamer”, but apparently I was as a kid. My Mother’s solution……a “spanking spoon”! She threatened to come in and spank ( this was the late 60’s!) and monsters or bad ” things” that I was certain were coming into my room at night. In the following days, she and I talked about it and she offered to let me keep the spanking spoon on my bedside table to scare away any offenders on my own. According to her it worked like a charm!

    Comment by Avalon | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  7. As our little one is just a year we haven’t experienced this yet. The bad dream bed sounds like a great way to comfort and get rest for yourself. I’ll have to file this away to pull out at the appropriate time. Thanks!

    Comment by Dani | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  8. Excellent! BTW, Sophie hasn’t had any bad dreams since my last email to you.

    Comment by candace | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  9. Ian started getting nightmares about 2 months ago. We just let him sleep with us if it’s the weekends. Nights where Paul works the next morning, I escort Ian back to his bed and snuggle with him for a few minutes to help him relax and possibly fall asleep.

    A friend of mine did similar to your idea, she called it her daughter’s nest. It almost looked like a nest too, with all the blankets and pillows circling around where she must have slept.

    Comment by mamacita tina | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  10. We’ve only had a few so far, but I keep a futon in her room and sleep near her crib for a little while until she’s settled.

    Comment by kittenpie | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  11. i obviously haven’t had to deal with nightmares yet as a parent, but i remember them as a kid. my mom did similar to you – she let me sleep with her for a while, and then as i got a bit older she made up a makeshift bed for me on the floor beside her bed. seemed to work, i guess. 🙂

    Comment by lara | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  12. I’ll often pop into the munchkin’s bed when he’s inconsolable. Then I can quietly make my exit after he’s fallen asleep.

    Of course, that’s if I don’t fall asleep, too. In which case I end up cuddling with a Lightning McQueen pillow.

    Comment by Carmi | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  13. Filing this one away for the future. Thanks! I could use some anti-monster spray too.

    Comment by Lady M | January 24, 2007 | Reply

  14. Here you are! I’ve been wondering about you – worrying that you’d taken some kind of last-minute holiday without warning since Bloglines was being mum about you. And here you are! In your new home! Congrats!

    So…I wish I’d picked you brain about six months ago when Jordan started his “monsters in the room” dance. We did everything: let him in our bed, used ‘monster spray’, and let him leave his light on, along with a flashlight in bed with him. Needless to say, he’s gotten over much of it by now; but he still insists on having his room light on. We’ve allowed it only because we switched the wattage to about 10 or 15. On one or two occasions he’s tried sleeping with the light off (at his request) but before I could get myself to bed I’d always hear him jump out of bed, run across the room to switch the light on, and then run and jump back into bed before the monsters could snatch at him! At least he stopped going into our room…I’ll remember the Bad Dream Bed for when Jas turns the age. Thanks!

    Comment by Jennifer | January 24, 2007 | Reply

  15. We have to have different stechniques for different “monsters”. If she’s just yeling about something that has happened to her in the day that she’s reliving in her dream (like: “I don’t want pancakes!”), I wake her up a little more and have her sit up to have a drink of water. For a while, she was scared of a red alligator that was her friend, but she really didn’t liek it if it kissed her on the head. So we put a green alligator in the bed with her because red alligators are afraid of green ones (After trying to convince her that red alligator’s couldn’t get in the house and especialy not in her room). Mostly, though, she sleeps with a flashlight and we put her mobile on her toddler bed when we switched her into it. It has a soft light on it that she can turn on if she wakes up, but it turns off after 5 minutes. That’s ususally all it takes.

    Comment by ktjrdn | January 24, 2007 | Reply

  16. Thank you for this. The other night my 3 year old son said “Mommy, will you take my dreams for me?” before he went to bed. I SO wanted to be able to say “Sure, and you won’t have another!” Broke my heart. Good ideas for then the dreams happen again.

    Comment by Tina | January 24, 2007 | Reply

  17. 1-JennyUK: Too bad about the mattress, because it sounds as if Jude could use it for just a little while longer. Still, seeing him all curled up in the duvets must be an adorable sight.

    2,3-Allison: Yes, though it’s lovely to have another adult for backup and support, there’s no denying that the decision-making process is a whole lot simpler when single! My kids’ dad did not really enjoy having the children in bed with us: this was a solution that worked for everyone. And yes, bad dreams are 100% normal.

    4-Peter: We parents give water for this problem quite a bit. Wonder why? I do remember spending some time in my children’s rooms and snuggling in teeny beds; the bad-dream bed was more comfortable and afforded us more sleep. I do not do well on less than my 8 hours…

    5-Z: Each child is different – right down to how much you’re liable to be pummelled in bed! None of mine were especially wriggly, but I had a client whose child gave her father a black eye while co-sleeping! Tiny heel went right into daddy’s eyeball. I think that was probably the deciding factor to put her in her own bed.

    6-Dani: You’re welcome. Hope it’s useful!

    7-Candace: Oh, good. So it probably was just that she was coming down with something.

    8-MamacitaTina: A nest! But of course – what else could you possibly call it?

    Child in parents’ bed, parent in child’s bed – nothing like a little snuggling to soothe away the bad dreams.

    9-Kittenpie: That works for Pumpkinpie? What a sweeti, civilized child she is. Many children would demand to be on the futon with you! In loud and unequivocal terms.

    10-Lara: Kids just want to be close. The difference between fantasy and reality can be a bit fuzzy at that age (should have mentioned this in the post!), so they may not be entirely sure there ISN’T a roaring monster somewhere in their bedroom. They saw it there only moments before…

    11-Carmi: Me, I’d be using Lightning as a shield! The thing that kept me out of my kids’ beds was the rough treatment. How such sweet and otherwise wonderfully cuddly children developed all those sharp points at night, I’ll never know – but grow them they did. Ouch.

    12-LadyM: Monster spray? Easy to make. I’ve heard of some parents who would make a big magical deal of the spray: mixing the ingredients while reciting magic rhymes. Others are less mystical, and just buy it from Canadian Tire. (Didn’t know they had Monster Spray? You just have to know where to look.) 😀

    13-Jennifer: Sounds like you sorted it out just fine. Putting in the low-watt bulb is a great idea. He gets control over whether to be in darkness or not, but the light level is not such that it will disturb his sleep.

    14-KT: Matching the response to the problem calls for lots of creativity – and you’ve displayed lots. The mobile sounds like a very useful one. Like Jennifer, you’ve come up with a solution that gives her some control over her environment.

    15-Tina: ‘Will you take my dreams for me?’ Oh. Best kid quote in a long time! What parent wouldn’t ache at that one? Poor little guy! But since you can’t, he can be encouraged that you’re always available to him, until he’s big enough to deal with his own dreams. (Though I confess that on the very rare occasions when my youngest, a very grown-up looking 13, shows up at my bedside having had a bad dream, I just melt a little. Love it.)

    Comment by Mary P | January 24, 2007 | Reply

  18. I had a dream catcher lying around… we had picked it up on a trip to New Mexico, but they’re easy enough to come by. I told my son the story of the dream catcher, and that it was magic, and that the bad dreams would get tangled up in the threads and wouldn’t bother him. I hung it up over his bed, and it seemed to work. Occasionally he still has a bad dream, so then I make a big fuss that, oops, must be time to clean out the dream catcher, so I take it down and we blow the dust of the old bad dreams out of it so it’s not clogged any more, I hang it back up, and he goes back to sleep.

    Comment by Lynn | January 24, 2007 | Reply

  19. Lynn – “Blow the dust of the old bad dreams out…”. Oh, that’s delightful! I love it. Well done!

    Comment by Mary P | January 24, 2007 | Reply

  20. Because my mom did, that is the reason I do.

    Comment by Peter | January 25, 2007 | Reply

  21. I love the idea of a “bad-dream bed!”
    My daughter went through this stage in kindergarten but I had forgotten (blocked it out?) until now–my son comes to get me at least twice a week. I was worried until my hubbie reminded me that I was in our daughter’s room just as often a few years ago.
    So I’m sure it will pass but a little mattress on the floor would be just right for our little guy–and me! Thanks!

    Comment by LoryKC | January 25, 2007 | Reply

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