Bag of tricks: the sleep edition - FamilyEducation

Bag of tricks: the sleep edition

August 05,2008

Over the summer, L.'s sleep habits have gone from bad to worse, and he's now crawling into bed with us in the middle of the night--something he hasn't done for four years. This is, in some ways, an improvement over the nervous shadowy figure standing by our bedside at 2:00 a.m. and frantically whispering to us, and a definite improvement over the terrified yelling at 3:00 a.m., but it's still not good. At L.'s eight-year appointment, his doctor told us that eight is a prime year for anxiety and night terrors. Eight, it appears, is a tough year. Kids begin to realize that there are real threats out there, and that the bad things of books and TV shows and the super hero world are real, in fact, and not easily conquered by magic powers and caped figures.

When L. was two and afraid of shadows (a common fear at that age in small children) and bad dreams, I found a small spray bottle, rinsed it out, and filled it with a special dream-be-gone spray. A few squirts before bedtime and the mist would instantly dissolve any nasty dreams lurking out there, ready to swoop down into unsuspecting young minds. We kept the dream-be-gone for many years, actually, and then that was replaced by a magical shirt (with special kisses planted into it by me each night), a lucky rock (placed under the pillow to absorb the bad dreams), and of course lots of night-lights--a steady stream of them, in fact. L. has always craved these tricks--they offer him comfort and fit nicely into his need for rituals and routines.

Eight is a tough age, though. The types of fears our son has now are not so easily dispelled by a magical mist, and even the lucky shirt--a charm he still keeps tucked near his face at night--doesn't seem special enough to chase away the dreams these days. At a fortieth birthday party for a friend this past weekend, I talked for almost 30 minutes straight with another mother of an eight-year-old. Her son is also having night terrors and trouble sleeping; finding this out reassured me, in a strange way, and made me feel not so alone. And I recently queried a group of friends of mine--wonderful parents each and every one of them--for help with L.'s night fears and sleep problems, and learned some fantastic "tricks of the trade" (the parenting trade, that is).

As I thought about the creative tips I received from my friends, I realized that we parents really are so multifaceted--we are part magician, part doctor, part storyteller, and part healer of cuts and bruises. We mix potions and recite verses, we soothe and love and shine our own light out into the dark, that beacon drawing our kids to us in the quiet of the night, when they are scared and just can't go to sleep.


The advice I got was so good that I really wanted to share it here, in the hopes of passing on more tricks of the trade to other parents who are dealing with sleep issues in their own homes. And if your kids are the types who sleep just wonderfully 10 hours/night, then you might want to pass these tips along to other frazzled moms or dads out there--the ones with the dark circles and the desperate look in their eyes.

If your child is troubled by bad dreams, make dream-catchers together. You can google how-to instructions, or check out this site. Be sure to also talk to your kids about the story behind the dream-catcher. The tale itself is beautiful and comforting, and you can put your own spin on it to match the specific anxieties or bad dreams your own child is having.

If monsters are keeping your child up, make a "monster chaser" with your child. You can take a plastic bat and paint it, or tape signs to it, like "Monster Beware!" and then let your child place it in a easy-to-reach spot by their bed. Tell them they can use the plastic bat to fight the monsters, and keep them away. You can tweak this as necessary--plastic swords also work well. Obviously very few kids will actually be up at night, swinging their bats in the dark at imaginary creatures, but I think part of learning to feel safe at night is to feel empowered and not helpless.

Give your child a flashlight to keep close. Of course, L. has three flashlights close at hand (and two that don't work); they do help most kids feel at ease and in control of the dark (flip a switch and the dark goes away!).

Make a cozy nest for your child in the hallway, or in your own room. Some parents may not want to do this at all, but it can be a good way to transition your child back into feeling safe at night again. We did this for L. when he was four, and he moved back into his room with no trouble, leaving us to feel smug for years until this summer, when he decided our bed looked awfully good to him again.

Try some good visualization techniques. Tape pictures of things your child loves on the walls around his bed. Teach your child to focus on the pictures, and to imagine being right there, inside the photo. If the memory of the bad dream keeps intruding on the good thoughts, try to teach your child to visualize something kicking the bad dream out of his mind. This is tough and takes time, but we are actually having some success with L. on this visualization technique. I used something similar when I was a child, and I sometimes even now call upon it at times when those dark thoughts and fears rear their ugly heads.

Do you have any other tips to add?

Right now we're using a combination of responsibility/goal charts (for both kids) and the cozy bed-on-our-floor trick. Hopefully both kids will meet their goals by the end of the weekend, and I'll have good news to report on Monday.