Get ready for lots of questions and sleep disruptions around Halloween.
Toddlers and preschoolers are starting to ask questions about the skeletons, headstones, spiderwebs, and other scary decorations in the neighbor’s yards and community, as well as in media.
And if your child is noticing the association of pictures of the dark or being alone in a dark room with the word “scary”, you need to be proactive and prepared for how to respond.
Your response will either strengthen and improve sleep skills and habits, as well as emotional regulation, or it will confuse or hinder it.
First things first. Nightmares.
Research shows that children as young as 3 years old can start having nightmares. But kiddos aged 3.5 to 4 are particularly prone due to the shift from 50 min sleep cycles to 90 mins at this age. Naps start to drop off and they experience longer amounts of REM sleep, where dreaming or nightmares take place. Nightmares take place in the latter half of the night between 1:30 am and 4 am. When your child notices and asks about the Halloween decorations they are seeing, or any other sort of visual association with the words ‘fear’ or ‘scary’, suggesting that they can’t sleep in the dark or without you in the room. Instead of accidentally legitimizing that the dark is something to be afraid of, by providing night lights or leaving the door open (which further fragments sleep)…
- Acknowledge and empathize with their experience of feeling ‘afraid’ or ‘scared’.Teach them that our feelings inform us, therefore all feelings are important.Learning how to manage important feelings takes practice, so that with time and testing, we become wise. You may want to go as far as telling them decorations and activities during special holidays, such as Halloween, Christmas, Super Bowl Sunday, Valentine’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, etc. provide opportunities to practice feelings like fear, surprise, wonder, disappointment, love, gratitude, and joy.
Tell your child how proud you are of them for always coming to them when they feel the feeling of fear. Because you will always tell them the truth, if it is truly something they should be afraid of, or not, and protect them if necessary. Or, in the case of sleeping in their dark room, you will teach them to acknowledge their feeling, and respond with courage and truth.
- Proclaim that you have good news! The truth is, sleeping in the dark, or sleeping alone in the dark, is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, when we sleep alone in the dark, our brains grow stronger, and our bodies grow smarter, and we wake up with a lot more energy to treat each other well and do fun things together as a family.
- Give them a ‘reminder tool’, to help them manage their important feelings of fear, in case they forget that you told them the truth. A reminder tool could be giving them a special stuffed animal in their bed that they can squeeze 3 times to help them remember. Or, it can be something that they can take anywhere with them, perhaps the first day at school, first sleepover at grandma’s house, or when walking by the neighbor’s yard with the Halloween decorations by saying a special poem or prayer, singing a song, or counting to 10.
- Get ready for the test! Your toddler or big kid will test you to see if YOU actually believe what you just said. They will insist that these things are still scary and/or pretend they never heard what you just told them. Your actions must match your words, or you become a liar in their eyes, instead of their important source for truth. So do not go back to legitimizing that sleeping in the dark, or sleeping alone in their room is scary by continuing to stay in the room with them or providing night lights. Encourage them to use their reminder tool, step back, and let your child take the step forward and discover that they are capable, and they can trust you.
Further instruction on this topic and troubleshooting additional toddler and big kid sleep challenges, purchase my $99 self-paced online Toddler and Big Kid Sleep Training Course!