by Teresa Cowan
“All around the house is the jet-black night,
It stares through the window pane,
It crawls in the corners hiding from the light,
And it moves with the moving flame.
“Now my little heart goes a-beating like a drum,
With the breath of the Bogie in my hair,
And all ’round the candle the crooked shadows come,
And go marching along up the stair…”
Robert Louis Stevenson
When I was a little girl, sometimes I’d awaken in the middle of the night. For grown-ups, the gentle creaks of the floorboards and the wind blowing through the trees can be comforting and familiar pacifiers. However, for children, the night with its ominous shadows and inexplicable noises can be disconcerting.
As a child when I awoke during the dark time, my active imagination took total control of my tiny bedroom. The slow rhythmic scraps of the icy branches on the window pane transformed into goblins with sharpened claws. A scarf, hanging haphazardly from the drawer, turned into a fire-breathing dragon.
My only line of defense was to lie perfectly still and to wish these apparitions away. However, as I recall, I inevitably needed to see the bathroom. (Try to keep still with that kind of twist to the scenario.) Eventually Mother Nature overrides all fears.
I’d tiptoe past the monsters (once they were looking the other way). But wouldn’t you just know it! Out in the hallway loomed my old arch enemy, the boa constrictor! In daylight this “meanie” was only my mom’s ancient barreled vacuum cleaner with its hose coiled around its body.
I was much like Harrison Ford in “The Temple of Doom,” fast, cunning and slipping past my adversaries without so much as a scratch. I must have been quite a stealthy operator since my parents didn’t so much as stir from their sleep. Lucky them!
Unfortunately, I have not been graced with such luck with regard to my own two bundles of joy. For instance, after we moved to Tokyo, Sven, then 18 months old, began waking up in a terrified state. I’d discover him sitting bolt upright in bed with his eyes wide open and screaming. Nothing I would do or offer him would quell his wails. Eventually he’d cry himself back to sleep in my arms.
These episodes repeated themselves for a few weeks and then miraculously disappeared from whence they came. Our pediatrician assured us these were just night terrors and are a common neurological development among children from age 2 to about 6. In any event, all the literature I’ve read suggests the following:
Put on the lights to dispel any scary images the child may be seeing. Don’t argue, just repeat some reassuring and soothing words. It’s highly unlikely he comprehends you because he’s not really awake. Don’t do anything to awaken him. You can only really ride out the storm with him. Read Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Five Years by Penelope Leach if you’d like more details.
In comparison to night terrors, nightmares are somewhat easier to handle and understand. The key is to get to the child as quickly as possible. Reassure him that whatever was bothering him is gone now. There’s no sense in saying “It’s just a dream,” because the dream is quite real to the child.
Since nightmares are often caused by some anxiety it is wise to determine the cause of the stress. Are you in the midst of toilet training? Has there been a recent trauma in the family?
Television is also very influential. Monitor what your child watches. If your child has repeated episodes, don’t leave him with a babysitter. Offer extra attention until he passes through this difficult period.
Another not-so-common sleep disturbance is sleepwalking. This can be frightening to encounter. My mother once found my brother clambering up to the windowsill, muttering something about the cat being left outside. We lived on the fourth floor!
However, according to the literature, a child wandering about in a trance-like state is in no real danger except for sharp edges and stairs. The advice is to simply lead the person back to bed. Chances are he won’t even remember it the next morning.
On the average, most children will at some time or another experience sleep problems. Below are a few suggestions to encourage a restful night.
• Make certain he goes to sleep with a satisfied stomach.
• Offer a glass of water to curb thirst in the middle of the night.
• Install a night light if he’s afraid of the dark.
• Remove obstacles which might appear ominous in the dark. (My daughter instructed me to remove the towels hanging over the door because they created images of witches.)
• Make sure he will remain warm enough throughout the night.
• Have him sleep in a quiet area of the house.
• Ensure that, at bedtime, he is relaxed, that he is not over-tired and that he’s had enough exercise.
• Most important, keep open the lines of communication.
• Also, I’ve found that discussing our dreams in the morning is a great way to start the day. Again, pleasant dreams!