3 to 5 Years
Nightmares and night terrors, which usually strike preschoolers, are common causes of night disturbance and resistance to bedtime at this age. "Nightmares are scary to kids, but night terrors are scarier to parents," says Dr. Widome. Children do not even remember having had night terrors, which are a partial arousal from deep sleep usually occurring within the first couple of hours after your child goes to sleep. She might sit up and scream, but she is not awake and not conscious that you're there. Night terrors tend to occur when your child is overtired, according to Dr. Widome. If she experiences them repeatedly, taking a very short nap in the late afternoon can reduce her fatigue.
Nightmares, on the other hand, tend to be concentrated in the second half of the night during REM sleep. Bad dreams are young children's way of playing out unresolved feelings or experiences, says Claire Lerner. Since they cannot yet distinguish between fantasy and reality, the scary feelings remain. In addition to providing comfort, help your child figure out ways to combat her fears. After having two bad dreams, my 4-year-old, Sara, was afraid to go back to sleep. Fortunately, her preschool class was making Native American "dream catchers" -- Sara's resembled a spiderweb with a feather dangling down. We hung it by her bed and talked about how the dream catcher would ensnare the bad dreams, while the good dreams would slide down the feather into her mind. The dream catcher worked-Sara hasn't had bad dreams since. Similarly, if your child is afraid of monsters, you might offer him a means of keeping them at bay (that is, in his control): One mother gave her son a bottle of "monster spray" (a water spritzer); another let her daughter choose a stuffed animal as her protector. Nightmares aside, if your preschooler is still waking up at night, you might want to consider using a system of rewards and consequences. Dr. Weissbluth recommends providing a set of sleep rules (close your eyes; stay quiet; stay in bed; try to sleep). For every night that he follows the sleep rules, the child earns a star. When he accumulates a certain number of stars, he receives a reward. When he doesn't follow the rules, he loses a privilege the next day. This method worked well with both our 4- and 6-year-olds. After just three nights, they were finally sleeping in their own beds until morning.