Help! My three year old is having horrible nightmares. He is waking up every night where he used to be a great sleeper. He is inconsolable! Nothing we do helps him. He often doesn't fall back to sleep unless we let him sleep on the floor in our room. Please help! How can I convince him he is safe and it's ok to go back to sleep in his room?! Am I creating bad habits to come by sometimes "giving in" and letting him sleep in our room?! Thanks!
From: Lisa, Newton, MA
In a word: no. Nightmares are a command performance for a parent. A 3-y-o can't distinguish between what's real and what's not, so even though he may wake up and not remember what he's just dreamed, he sure as heck knows he's frightened. If he wakes up scared and thinks he can't come to you for comfort because you'll be angry, it's a double whammy.
Sometimes you can figure out what's causing the nightmare. At 3, kids typically have nightmares about monsters or being lost which really is about the fear of separation: What if dad forgets to pick me up at daycare and monsters capture me when he doesn't show up? Obviously a 3-y-o can't verbalize all this but sometimes you are able to put it together. For instance, if the pick-up parent has run into traffic and been late two days running, you could guess this is the cause and say, "I wonder if you worry when daddy is late to pick you up. I promise I will be there."
Other possible causes of nightmares can be milestones in a child's life (moving from the toddler to the preschool room; potty training), or stress (a parent's loss of job or new job; a death in the family). If possible, try to help him manage the pressure or understand the stress.
When this kind of detective work isn't possible (and don't make yourself crazy; it often isn't), reassure him during the day and be available to him during the night. Bottom line, though, comes back to what do you do in the middle of the night? I love that he has a place on the floor of your room; it's what I would have suggested. It's the best way to meet his needs and yours, ie., getting the sleep you need. You may not feel that way yet because he's too young to put himself back to sleep in your room on his own. That will come. If you don't want him there, the alternative is to stay with him in his room until he is able to fall back to sleep. Night lights can help, so can a stuffed animal that he can hug. (When my son was little, he had a stuffed animal known as Baka Baku, who was half lion, half elephant, and who sucked up bad dreams, but I've searched the web and haven't been able to find him anymore. If anybody knows where to find Baka, let us know!)