by Alix Tonsgard
During a Family PlayShop session here at the Museum, the topic of irrational fears and night terrors in the toddler years came up. I shared that the little one in my life is currently terrified of vacuum cleaners. He is 23 months old and at a stage in his development where his brain is working hard to distinguish what is real. I shared with the group that knowing what I do about child development helps to put this into perspective, but it doesn’t make it any easier to navigate this challenging time.
The topic then shifted to night terrors. Night terrors and nightmares are two very different things. Witnessing a night terror is upsetting. Night terrors take place during a stage of sleep when the child is not dreaming, and as a result they do not feel afraid and do not remember the experience when they wake. Typically the child will not wake when the terror passes, so the best thing you can do is make sure they are safe and let it pass. Children who have night terrors typically grow out of them. This is one of those difficult moments when, as the caregiver, you have to try to just breathe and remember that this is more upsetting for you than for the child.
Nightmares are a different story. Nightmares generally occur in children ages 3 – 6 years. Like dreams, we don’t really know what causes them which makes it hard to prevent them.
Here are a few things you can do to promote a good night’s sleep:
- Involve your child in picking out something special or comforting for their room such as a night light or a special pillow.
- Stick to a regular bedtime and wake-up time to the best of your ability.
- Create a routine that promotes a calming sense of safety and security.
- Avoid over stimulating activities or anything that could potentially be scary before bed.
As I reflect on the conversations that take place here at the Museum, I’m left thinking about just how powerful it is to have a space where caregivers can feel supported and understood by others. In these moments I am most proud of the work that we do here at DCM and the impact we have in the lives of the families that we serve.
Alix Tonsgard is an early learning specialist at the DuPage Children’s Museum.