“To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”
I was having one of those stress dreams – you know, the one where something is chasing you. It was when I had finally managed to find a place to hide that I felt the ghostly caress of a tiny finger on my cheek. I woke up with a scream to see the silhouette of my then 2 1/2-year-old son standing before me. Shuffling into view behind him was his twin sister. Once I scraped myself off the ceiling I made sure they weren’t sick or freaked out from a bad dream (like I was) then walked them back to bed. If only it would be so easy again.
As soon as the twins reached this age, we started having a resurgence of sleep issues. It turns out they were hitting a stage in their development where this was normal. The first couple of nights we assumed the problem was a nightmare, but once we made the mistake of letting them come and sleep in our bed, that became their main goal once 3 a.m. rolled around, scared or not. It surprised us how easily a bad habit could stick, and we were not about to start having a “family bed.” With each night, it got harder and harder to put them back into their own beds. Worried we were being heartless parents, however, we told them they could still always call out to us if they were sick or had a real nightmare. Suddenly, they both had 3 a.m. stomachaches and nightmares. We knew we were losing this battle. All the hard work that went into sleep-training them in their first year of life, and that had seemed to work so well for so long, was crumbling down around us. It was time to take some real action.
First, we put up a gate between the family room and the short hallway to our bedroom to keep them from being physically able to barge in before wake-up time (some parents prefer to put a gate up at the kids’ bedroom door, instead). Realizing that it was asking too much to have them stay in their actual beds, we simply asked that, if they wake up early, they play in the bedroom – or the family room, if they preferred – until it was “wake-up time.” The twins, however, decided they’d rather tantrum by the gate. This set off the baby in the other bedroom, creating a trio of screaming that left us bleary-eyed and cranky for the rest of the day. Every day. We needed to deal with what was behind it all.
Sitting down on their bedroom floor, we asked them why they were doing this. They were scared, they replied, of shadows and the dark. It seemed that the more independent they were becoming, the more they needed comfort. Fair enough. They wanted a nightlight, we got them a nightlight. So we made up fun stories about the shadows and showed them what the objects making them really were in order to demystify them. We got light-up Pillow Pets to put a soothing canopy of stars above the bed. We tried a clock that turned green at a set time to indicate when it was “wake-up time.” We re-established a solid pre-bed ritual of bath, books and milk. And each new thing would work wonderfully … for a couple of days. Then it was back to screaming by the gate.
So, we brought out the large poster board and drew up a chart with their names and the days of the week – each night that they didn’t tantrum at the gate and played nicely until the clock turned green, they’d get a sticker. After three stickers in a row they’d get a “treat” of some kind. Who doesn’t like stickers and treats? We went through about two months of this: one night, successful, the next night, awful … until one day, out of nowhere, everything started to work in harmony. Why? I can only guess, and my guess is that it was a combination of three things: We stuck to our guns about the rules, we did everything we could to alleviate their anxiety and turn their focus on rewards and, perhaps most importantly, they were now two months further along in development. As one parent put it to me after hearing me vent, sometimes you just have to wait it out.
Some things we didn’t try but were recommended to us by other parents and preschool teachers was to start naptime earlier in the day so they’d be more tired by bedtime, but not over-tired (which would make them crankier during the going-down process). Some child psychologists suggest letting the kids go into your bed each time they ask so that they don’t get the message that their fears won’t be soothed. Personally, I preferred to find a way to acknowledge and work through their anxieties without turning our bed into a can of sardines. Experts also suggest avoiding scary images on TV or in books, and no TV close to bedtime. No matter what tools you choose to use, the one thing everyone agrees on is that it’s not a matter for punishment or yelling, no matter how tired we get. They’re not being naughty; they’re being toddlers, right on schedule. Pour yourself an extra cup of coffee and remember: This, too, shall pass.
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