Getting Kids to Sleep

Featured Picture Book

THE DREAM JAR by Lindan Lee Johnson

(Available at your local public library or bookstores, including online stores.)

THE DREAM JAR tells the story of two sisters who share their bedroom. Little sister depends on big sister in a most special way – to help her go to sleep even when monsters and other scary things are keeping her awake. She is convinced that she and her big sister “’… can never ever ever be separated for the rest of our lives – ever!’” Understandably, she becomes beside herself when big sister plans to be away for an overnight with a friend. However, being truly loyal to her little sister, big sister agrees to pass on her special sleep secrets. She teaches little sister how to keep bad dreams away and replace them with happy Dreamy Dreams and how to use a Dream Jar to gain power over those bad dreams. Big sister promises her secret ways will bring sleep to even a frightened and full-of-doubt little sister. Is THE DREAM JAR just a tale of magical imagination? Or, is it a “how-to” book with real solutions for children who can’t sleep? Either way, any child would be delighted to try big sister’s secrets.

Parenting Thoughts 
The Dreamy Dream

Dr. Mom:  I couldn’t decide whether THE DREAM JAR was just an appealing children’s fantasy or an actual self-help book. I thought the secret ways big sister was using to go to sleep were very doable. They could actually work and help a lot of children go to sleep. I wanted to share the book for that reason. I wanted parents to hear about these ideas and decide whether to try them with their children.

There were two things a parent could try – the “Dreamy Dream” and the “Dream Jar.” The Dreamy Dream encourages children to use their imaginations to re-think, re-create, and rewrite a bad dream. The secret is that they can turn the dream into a fun, safe, comforting dream instead. The monsters can be anything the child can think of that would be the opposite of scary. For example, the child can imagine the monsters as though they were teeny tiny, toothless, furry and cuddly, or so sleepy they can’t wake up no matter how hard they try.

Young children will need your help to create a Dreamy Dream. You can make suggestions about things that would make monsters funny or lovable. You can describe these new monsters in ways that will create funny or “lovey” pictures in the child’s mind. You can encourage the child to make up his own story or dream about the new monsters.

Darling Daughter:  Names!  Give them silly names, snuggly names, or cute cuddly names.  Shakespeare was wrong when he said,  “What’s in a name?” . . . a whole lot is in a name, and the cuter it is the more endearing the monster.

Dr. Mom:  Great idea!

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The Difference between Pretend and Real

Before talking about the second big sister “secret” – the Dream Jar – I want to say something about the importance of keeping it real. The dreamy dream idea just might work for a lot of children, and it is very important that we encourage children to use their imaginations, but in the end, children need to understand that no monsters are real. They are pretend – both the scary ones and their re-created funny or “lovey” ones.

As children become better and better pretenders, they need to learn to tell the difference between what is real and what is pretend. Luckily, even a person with a wonderful imagination can learn what things are real and what things are pretend. Does this mean that adults can’t play along and pretend with the child? That they shouldn’t suggest new types of dreamy dream monsters? No, not at all. Dreamy Dreams can be a very useful tool to help children put themselves back to sleep after having a bad dream. But, you can let the child know that all monsters, good ones and scary ones, are all just pretend. For example, you can say, “Why don’t you pretend and dream a funny monster instead.” You can say, “Monsters are not real, so you can make them be any way you want them to be. Let’s try making them cuddly.”

Chasing the bad monsters out of the bedroom, spraying magic potions, or casting a spell on them tells the child that you believe the monsters are real – just as the child fears they are. It says you think you need to protect the child from a real monster. Why else would you be slaying the monster? On the other hand, firmly saying that monsters are only pretend and can’t really be in your house or under a bed helps the child understand that there is a difference between pretend and real. It clearly says that monsters are only pretend, not real, and therefore don’t need to be slayed, poisoned, or thrown out the window.

Guilty!  We’ve made grand announcements that monsters must go back to their house and that they may not come into ours.  Boy, did I feel silly, but boy was I out of ideas to calm down my two-year-old in the middle of the night.

You and millions of other parents! I hope this blog will help parents think about this and decide whether they want to try another approach.

However, what children are feeling about monsters is real, and they need to know you believe that they are afraid. The monster under the bed is about fear, so the way to help is to work on that fear. Dreamy dreams of nice monsters are one way a child can outsmart his fear. He can become in control of the monster, making it as funny, cute, kind, or cuddly as he wants.  

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Dream Jars

The second idea in the book is the Dream Jar. It is a collection of ideas a child can use to make up a Dreamy Dream. It is an actual jar with actual notes in it with Dreamy Dream ideas on them. Creating a Dream Jar starts with thinking of a list of things that make the child happy and feel good. Are their special places, things or powers that the child has fun with and enjoys thinking about? The jar can hold notes about these things and how he can use these places, things, and powers to create his own good monsters. For example, the child might have a magic wand, secret potion, light saber, ability to disappear, secret garden, etc. That will be on the note telling the child to use it to create a Dreamy Dream. For a young child, you can make up the jar and the notes in the jar yourself. You can read the notes to the child as needed when a bad dream happens. For an older child, you can fill the jar together, and he can learn to use the notes in the jar on his own when he has a bad dream.

We kind of do this now, but it all comes from my head at the spur of the moment.  Ezzy, my ten- year-old, announces she can’t fall asleep or can’t go back to sleep, and I scrounge around in my head for ideas to distract her and help her drift off to sleep.  When she was younger we would count to 100 forwards then backwards in our heads.  She would rarely make it back to 1.  As she became a better counter that idea didn’t work as well. 

Now I try to remember passages from stories we read that made her laugh, and I have her think about that. She will usually replay the scene over in her head, but sometimes she will manipulate it or add to it.  Lately, E. has  been trying to recall by name and mental picture all the dragons that have ever been on the “How to Train Your Dragon” cartoon show (like counting to 100 up and back but a little more complex).  Having ideas already in the Dream Jar would definitely make my life easier late at night. 

Thanks for all the ideas. I’m sure many parents will be interested in them. Parent-to-parent help is the very best. Just make sure you trust and respect the parent you are taking ideas from. Remember, you know best what is worth trying with your child.

Image courtesy of papaija2008 /

Image courtesy of papaija2008 /

Getting Babies to Sleep

By now, I’m sure some readers are thinking, “This is all about an older child. What about babies?” Yes, it is different for babies. Dreamy Dreams and Dream Jars won’t work. But, the fact that children need ways to comfort themselves and put themselves to sleep is true at all ages – in fact even parents need to know how to do that for themselves.

In order for babies to learn to put themselves to sleep, they need some time in their beds alone to discover ways to calm themselves down. This means they will likely cry – some more than others.

That is sooooo hard to do, but I agree they will be ok and, in fact, better off in the long run.

It is true that babies need to be responded to when they cry, but the key is when or how quickly to respond. When you give them enough time to cry before you respond, you are first giving them a chance to solve their own problem. Then, when they can’t they know they have clearly and loudly called for help. And, when you do respond, they connect your arrival to their having called for help. This helps them “decide” that you were listening and cared enough to come. See “Decisions Babies Make” for more about baby “decisions.”

Responding at the first whimper, however, is like responding before the baby had a chance to finish her sentence. She had no chance to solve her own problem (in this case, discovering a way to comfort herself and fall asleep). Also, she may never have really realized she was calling for help or fully understood why you arrived. Think of those first, early cries as her trying to figure out what is wrong and what she wants to do about it. Give her a chance to figure that out.

Remember that you know your baby best.  You can decide what amount of crying time and what intensity of crying is reasonable for your baby. You will know how much alone time she should have to discover something that comforts her and when it is time for you to soothe her. The good news is – once she does discover something that comforts her, she will try it sooner and sooner and reduce her crying time.

Parents I have known who have used this approach set a number of minutes they will wait, and they try to stick to it, even if the crying gets pretty intense for a while. I have known parents who have set anywhere from 5 (You’ll be surprised how long 5 minutes can be.) to 20 minutes as their limit – depending on the age and temperament of the baby. Just be sure that the baby’s sleeping arrangements are safe, and she can’t hurt herself – fall out of her crib or get hurt on anything around or in her crib. And, an adult should always be nearby and listening for any unusual sounds that would alert you to go in the room to check on the baby.

This approach is for babies. If you have an older child who is resisting going to bed, you will need to consider other techniques that require more planning and thought in order to assure the child’s safety while “leaving them alone to go to sleep.” You might talk to your pediatrician or other parents that you trust for ideas.

See today’s “Daily Parenting Tip” based on our featured book. Come back every day for another good parenting decision and how to practice it.

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