Establishing and Keeping Baby's Sleep Routine

Bad Dreams and Nighttime Fears

Things that go bump in the night can wreak havoc on a family's sleep, keeping your preschooler from falling asleep at night or waking your toddler at 3 a.m. One school of experts suggests "using something imaginary to battle something imaginary," says Mindell, who suggests putting some water in an empty squirt bottle, labeling it "Monster Spray," and then spraying it in your child's room when he fears a monster is lurking under his bed. Sheila Johnson, of Plainfield, Illinois, dubbed room freshener "Magic Spray" and found that spritzing it around the bedroom of her then-3-year-old daughter, Whitney, worked like a charm.

But others say parents have to strike a balance between recognizing common fears and giving in to them. "If you do something like Monster Spray or wave a baseball bat at invisible foes, your child might think, 'If Mommy is spending so much time doing this, then there must be something to this,'" says Dr. Owens. Her alternative? Provide a special stuffed toy to ease separation anxiety and fears.

About a year ago, nightmares descended on the Rath house in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, after then-3-year-old Ethan saw The Polar Express. "He wakes up screaming, crying, and sweating, talking about a train coming," says Ethan's mother, Bryn. Her solution: holding Ethan for a few minutes, assuring him everything is all right. This is a textbook case of an authentic nightmare (versus a plot to sleep with Mom and Dad!). According to Dr. Ferber, nightmares are typically a very occasional event, but when they do occur, it's usually in the second half of the night. Upon waking, your child will look agitated and should be able to describe a few details of the dream. "If you believe your child truly had a nightmare, the child needs to be handled like any child who is frightened, and you need to stay there with the child." Dr. Ferber says the message you give your child in such a situation is a good one: "You have your own room, but if something happens, we take care of you."

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