Monday, December 8, 2014

Night, Night. Sleep Tight.

The Nightmare Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)

        "Ah sleep! It is a gentle thing, beloved from pole to pole." That is so true! Take it from, someone who often suffers from insomnia, Coleridge was absolutely right, there are few things as pleasant as sleep. Most of the time, that is. Sometimes it is not so pleasant. "To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there's the rub." The word "rub" means "problem" and Shakespeare was talking about the "big sleep", of course, but the little sleep can sometimes be no picnic either. Not all sleep is peaceful and, just as Hamlet feared, it's not the sleeping that is the problem, it's the dreaming.

        Yep, I'm talking about nightmares, the "bad dreams" that wake our children up in the middle of the night and are the bane of every young child and their sleep deprived mothers. What are they, these "boogie man" dreams that haunt the night? The "mare" in nightmare raises the image of a female horse, and I have seen art and even cartoons depicting a nightmare as a dark horse, but the word actually comes from the Old English word "maere"; a mythological demon from Germanic folklore that tormented with frightening dreams. (Why is Germanic folklore always so dark? Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, good Lord!) Regardless of where the word comes from the actuality comes from within, from ourselves. Essentially then, a nightmare is our selves scaring ourselves. No wonder they are so frightening. Who knows better than ourselves what we are afraid of?

        Kiley woke up from her nap the other day in an absolute "state". She was crying inconsolably, disoriented, I didn't know what the matter was. It took a while to calm her down and after ruling out any injury I came to the conclusion she had awakened from a nightmare. What else could it be? But that raises the question: do babies have nightmares, and if so, about what?

        Babies spend a great deal of time sleeping. The younger they are the more they sleep. So with all of that sleeping going on is there a correspondingly large amount of dreaming as well, and therefore the potential for a larger amount of nightmares? Surprisingly enough, some research indicates that the answer is "no". Babies do not dream a lot, researchers say; in fact they may not dream at all. Some neuroscientists believe that babies are actually dreamless for the first couple of years! This despite the fact that babies spend much more of their sleeping time (about twice as much) in the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep than adults do, and it is in the REM phase that adults dream. Neuroscientists believe, however, that REM sleep serves a different function in infants. It allows babies' brains to form new neural pathways and for different parts of the brain to become connected, a prerequisite for memory. Memory seems to be essential to dreaming and perhaps we don't dream when we are babies for the same reason we don't remember being babies – a lack of the ability to store memories. Later, REM sleep aides in the development of language, (similarly, young birds learn to "sing" during REM sleep.) 

        It is believed that dreaming is a mental process that forms in early childhood only after the ability to imagine things visually and spatially has been achieved (somewhere near the end of the first two years.) Not surprisingly, it seems the initial dreaming of small children is more primitive than adult dreams are. Even at the advanced age of four or five, children typically describe dreams that are passive and plain with no characters that move around and engage in action. This might be logical. Imagination, which is what dreams seem to be made of, grows with experience. The more you know the more you can imagine, and young children are not renowned for their knowledge. It isn't until about the age of seven or eight that children begin to have dreams with more structure, action, and plot. This is the same time when children gain a clear idea of their own identity and so begin putting themselves into their own dreams.

        I find all of that kind of stuff fascinating but other "experts" disagree with it and I am not really buying it. Since infants can't talk, all opinions on whether they dream or not must be based on supposition. I am sure any dreams a one-year-old might have are far more primitive than the dreams of a forty-year-old or even an eight-year-old, but to assume that they do not dream at all is jumping to conclusions. It may be true that very young children have a limited ability to form memories but that merely suggests a capacity for unsophisticated dreams not a total lack of dreaming. In the same vein, the static and plain dreams reported by four and five-year-olds may merely be the result of a limited ability to express themselves rather than a limitation in dreaming. (Over the years, I have learned to take whatever a four-year-old tells me with a grain of salt.) My husband is fond of relating some truly complex and horrific dreams he had at the age of four or five. (But then, over the years I have learned to take everything my husband tells me with a grain of salt too.) Still, I probably agree that it isn't until the age of seven or eight that sleeping becomes the nightly adventure that it is for most of our lives. And it is probably around that age when the "nightmare" takes its classic form.

        Sigmund Freud said that "dreams are the windows to the subconscious" and that they are often filled with symbolic imagery that has meaning only on a subconscious level. It may be that some dreams are an attempt by the subconscious to work through some unresolved internal conflict, but I don't believe that all dreams or even most dreams have some deep hidden meaning wrapped in symbolic imagery. Sometimes a grizzly bear wearing your father's tie while eating your mother is just a grizzly bear wearing your fathers tie while eating your mother, but regardless of any lack of deep meaning it is still horrific and wakes you up with a start. And that's what we are talking about here. What do you do when your child, of any age, wakes up from a nightmare?

        The obvious answer is that you need to follow your natural instincts and console them. Regardless of the child's age, consolation is the first step and with pre-lingual children the last step. Soothing sounds and soothing actions work good on them. For older children, more may be needed. I try to help them allay their fears by talking about what frightened them and, depending on their age and level of emotional development, using calm language to ease their trepidation. Helping them to understand that what happens in dreams does not affect the waking world is good if you can pull it off (for God's sake never let children see any of that Freddy Kruger stuff), but not all children waking from a nightmare can use cool logic to calm themselves. When talking about a nightmare, I find it best if you can get them to do most of the talking. Just as with guilt, fear can be relieved by unburdening one's self, it's cathartic. Drinking a glass of water usually helps, not because they are thirsty but because it is a common and ordinary action that helps bring them back to the real world and has a calming effect.

        Some children have more nightmares than others for whatever reason. Sometimes having them keep a diary or journal can be helpful. Girls seem to take to this kind of thing more than boys but boys can get into it too. It can be cathartic and fun and also helps develop writing skills. There are journals designed strictly for recording nightmares (see here) and are whimsical and fun. Habitual nightmares, however, might be a sign of something serious going on, perhaps in the waking world, and should be taken seriously. If it gets to the point where you find yourself wondering if your child needs professional help dealing with such an issue, stop wondering, the answer is probably yes. Even if you are wrong, better safe than sorry.

        We all have "favorite" nightmares that we remember all of our lives and often tell other people about. Many of them were dreamed in our childhood. We even have recurring nightmares that pop up here and there throughout our lives. The city of dreams is full of neighborhoods good and bad, and we can never tell, upon laying down our heads, which neighborhood the sleep bus will let us off in. But we spend one third of our life asleep for a reason. The waking world is a weary place for both our bodies and our souls, and sleep a gift that is given and gratefully received, whatever dreams may come.



  1. I want my grandchildren to enjoy the full richness of literature by visiting every culture with them. But what the heck? Witches, ogres and monsters lurk in every wood and oven, under every leaf and beneath the bed! There are lost and frightened children on every page and ones subjected to extreme punishment for telling lies! I've been picking through those tales very carefully to avoid nightmares!

    1. I know! It is really difficult to find a story from Grimm's Fairy Tales that is actually appropriate for children. While growing up I always confused the surname Grimm in the title with the word grim and thought it referred to the dark nature of the subject matter. I believe that most of those stories were composed as cautionary tales for children in a less enlightened age and reflected a view of life and the world that was far more "grim" and pessimistic than is common today. A harsh life breeds a harsh imagination. Nan