Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What a Nightmare! The Importance of Sleep

If you have a child, you are familiar with insomnia. Period. (This one deserves a line of its own for dramatic effect, more a little later).

You're also very likely familiar with nightmares and have probably also experienced a night terror or two. The first time I met Mr. Night Terror up close and personal was when R was about 2. Needless to say I was a nervous wreck. What's not to fall apart about when you see your child screaming at the top of his lungs, completely oblivious to your reassurances and hugs and there's not a damn thing you can do about it?

Nightmares vs Night Terrors

Night Terrors
No recollection the morning after
Memory of having the bad dream and in fact will be able to discuss it

Eyes open but not awake

Comfort/touch does not help
Hugs and reassurance will soothe

Will often go back to deep sleep immediately after
Will likely need help getting back to sleep

Often during a night terror, your child will scream, seem very afraid and unfortunately there's not much you can do to help except ride the storm out - the good news is that it doesn't last long (although it seemed eternal to me) and it has no permanent effects on your child. The most important thing during a night terror is to make sure your child isn't in harm's way as he/she will not be alert enough to realize what is happening. Where you can be proactive is in preventing night terrors in the first place primarily by ensuring your child isn't overtired. Another trick my pediatrician taught me that applies to different types of  'night wakings' is to study their pattern i.e. what time of the night does it usually happen, do certain foods (common culprit is caffeine) trigger it? If you notice the night terrors happen at a particular time every night, wake your child 10 minutes before and get him/her out of bed either to take a bathroom break or to get a glass of water. Night terrors may also be more common when children are sick. 

With nightmares, reassuring your child is the best course of action. Hug your child and help him/her get back to sleep. Talk abut the nightmare the next day and teach your child how to handle it. My love affair with 'tools' started with this very issue - I want my children to be confident, independent and able to tackle their fears (can you tell I was a scared-y cat when I was young?!) so I started coming up with different ways to 'arm' them. One I like especially is positive imagery i.e. replacing the negative image (monster, shadow etc) with a positive one (ice cream, playground, smiley face). You'd be surprised to hear how much children need to feel in control of their lives - equipping them with these tools allows them to do just that and chances are they will use them well into their adult lives. 

Another thing to watch out for that applies to both night terrors and nightmares is limiting the amount of exposure your child has to potentially scary images via television, movies and video games - especially if you have a sensitive child. It takes a bit of detective work to figure out what constitutes scary for your child but it's worth it in my opinion. For e.g. R has been scared of people in costumes since he was a toddler but I only recently discovered that it is the mask part of the costume that he is afraid of. Interesting, no?


So back to the point about ensuring your child has had adequate sleep. Lack of sleep (in my humble opinion) is one of those things that is most underrated in the world of parenting - I have been on both sides of the fence i.e. have let my kids stay up late when they didn't seem sleepy and also seen the difference when they had a consistent, early bed time. Trust me when I say the difference is eye opening! The consistency allows their body clocks to ring when it's time to sleep and the earliness means they get good quality sleep and also enough of it. I am posting below what is considered 'enough' on average but the point to note here is not to get hung up on the # but to use it as a guide along with your observations of your child in the morning (warning signs are crankiness, not easily woken in the morning, falling asleep in the car, complaints of being tired):

Total Sleep (inc naps)
Birth - 2 months
3 - 11 months
1-3 years
3-6 years

6-10 years

10-17 years

Again, this is only a guide and the real test should be watching your little (or not so little) one for cues. In my case, my kids have always, God help me, been early risers :-) They will wake at around 6:30am come rain or shine - I learnt very quickly that the only way they would get enough sleep was if I put them to bed early. So at the ages of 4 and 6, both my kids sleep at 7:30 and wake at 6:30 without a nap. A little on the lower side for Z but she will sometimes wake 1/2 hour or so later than her brother (provided he stays quiet enough after he wakes). 

Can I just take a mommy minute to say that lovely as this all sounds, I AM EXHAUSTED!!

OK, now that I have that out of my system, on to some natural ways to enhance your child's sleep experience. BTW if you are breast feeding, you can try these yourself as well to reap the benefits indirectly.

~ Passion Flower Tea (for children over 1 year): Passion Flower is known for its sedative and calming properties. Brew up a cup and have your child sip on it as part of your night time routine. Also effective is Chamomile tea.
~ Rescue Sleep (for children over 1 year): a derivative of Rescue Remedy which I've spoken about in several posts. It contains 6 flower essences that all help promote relaxation.
~ Essential Oils (safe for babies): use our old friends, Lavender and Roman Chamomile on your child's pillow or PJ's to soothe fears. 
~ Massage (wonderfully safe for babies!) - use Olive Oil after a bath and gently massage your child's tummy, back and feet. Add oils above to double the dose of relaxation.
~ Lullabies/White Noise (much needed for babies!): I LOVE Music Together lullabies but try any soothing music. Also useful is turning on a fan outside your child's room to create 'white noise' i.e drown out other sounds from the house like a loud TV for e.g. 
~ Foods containing Melatonin: cherries, flax seed, fennel, green cardamom (make tummy tea!).
~ Avoid giving your child caffeine a couple of hours before bedtime (i.e. chocolate!).
~ Avoid too much sugar before bedtime (did I mention chocolate?).
~ Switch off the TV, video game console and computer a couple of hours before bedtime.
~ Look into a consultation with a professional homeopath to address any underlying issues if the problem is long term.

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?”  Ernest Hemingway


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