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The man behind the curtain – toddlers & nightmares

Penelope & Bella - Toddlers & nightmares

My sister told me the other day that her 2 year old son had a nightmare, and that he was worried about “the man behind the curtain”. And I was wondering how his little mind could comprehend fear like that. I mean, it’s not like he’s been watching any age-restricted suspense thrillers lately. And I’m sure she’s not reading Stephen King novels to him. How does someone who’s only been breathing on his own for 24 months think up this stuff? Poor little man…

It seems like a lifetime ago that my kids were that age, I can’t actually remember when they started having nightmares. I see my 11 year old daughter walking down the passage, looking over her shoulder while picking up her pace, as if someone is following her all the time. Then I wonder if I was just as scared at that age. I remember going to put my pillow and duvet down on the floor by my dad’s side of the bed during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night. Although I also think that was because I watched too many scary movies! It was the in-thing at one stage, remember Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and the like? A sleep over party wasn’t complete until you were hiding under your duvet, stuffing your face with Ghost Pops and watching with one eye as Freddy Krueger pulled some poor unsuspecting soul through a mirror…Ugh! And then when the party was over you couldn’t sleep in your own bed for weeks – or until the next sleep over party anyway.

But what causes nightmares in toddlers who have had such limited exposure to the world? As it turns out, children’s brains are a lot more intuitive than we think. The human brain is like a sponge for the first few years of life, there is so much to learn, and so much to experience and all these new things need to be filed and processed at night when we sleep.

Dreams and nightmares happen during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. REM sleep accounts for 25% of our night’s sleep and usually occurs 90 minutes after falling asleep and recurs every 90 minutes, getting longer into your sleep. So you will probably find that nightmares happen most frequently in the second half of your toddler’s sleep, when REM sleep stages are at their longest. REM sleep is also the phase of sleep in which our brains file and process everything that we learned / saw / experienced that day. If you would like a full breakdown of the different stages of sleep, have a look at What Happens When You Sleep on  – it’s really interesting.

There are numerous events in a toddler’s life that can cause nightmares, namely: moving house; starting a new school; birth of a sibling; stress in the home; or following a traumatic event. Nightmares start becoming evident in the toddler – preschool years. Your toddler might experience a nightmare before he is even able to communicate it to you properly. So if your normally peaceful sleeper has woken up and seems inconsolable or clingy, it’s probably because he’s had a nightmare.

To help ensure you and your baby get a peaceful night’s sleep, you could try the following tips to keep the monsters at bay:

1.  a consistent bedtime routine will help your toddler feel at ease

2.  ensure there is quiet time before bed, read him a story, sing a song together or teach him to pray

3.  avoid scary / tense movies before bedtime. In fact age-restricted viewing should be avoided altogether if possible

4.  make sure his room is a comfortable temperature. Research shows that 22 degrees Celsius (about 70 degrees Fahrenheit) is the ideal temperature for sleeping

5.  provide him with a soft toy, cuddle thing or taglet

6.  reassure him that nightmares are not real

7.  allow him to sleep with a night light on if all else fails. Make sure the bulb is not too bright, as light disrupts a good night’s sleep by interfering with our melatonin levels

You know, I’m still not sure where the “man behind the curtain” comes from, but we do know that children pick up on more than we realise. Perhaps it’s from over-hearing us talking about the evils of this world. It’s not always easy to remain sensitive to the thoughts of children, by censoring our concerns about these evils, when those very things scare the hell out of us.

My darling boy, I’m not sure where he comes from, but I hope the man behind the curtain never bothers you again.

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