It’s 4 a.m. Saturday. Or is it Monday? Thursday? Never mind. It’s happening every night.
The regular sleep sounds fill the room
’til the whimpering starts, then the wails begin
And I trudge towards Sienna in the gloom
Sienna, who is nearly age 3, is at a beautiful stage in her life. With each second, each breath, her mind blazes with imagination. A sweet request turns Daddy’s hand into any character – Captain Hook, Baymax from Big Hero 6, Scooby Doo. Stuffed animals converse. Putting on a silky cloth turns her into a princess or a superhero. I sit there watching her with wonder. What’s going through her mind? What does she see that I don’t?
But with your child’s Big Bang of imagination comes dreams, particularly scary ones. Sienna’s besieged by nightmares. Each night she wakes up crying, asking for Mommy or Daddy. Each night one of us slips into her room to comfort and hold her, tell her everything’s OK and that she’s safe.
It started with garbage trucks. Once a week, between 2 and 5 in the morning, a massive garbage truck snorts and squeals and bangs and screeches as it empties the Dumpsters across the street. Awakened by the racket, Sienna screamed for Mommy or Daddy for help. I’d go in and pick her up, her little heart racing against my chest, tears like rivulets running down to her chin and falling onto my shoulders. I’d stroke her sweaty hair and tell her it’s OK. It’s just a garbage truck. I’d take her to the window to see the big green truck with blazing white headlights pick up and empty each dumpster until the noise finally stopped and it chugged down the street and out of sight. I’d hug and reassure her as I could and then I’d gently put her down among her stuffed animals hoping she’d feel safe.
“Daddy! Don’t go!”
And I’d be forced to sleep on the floor, the carpet rough against my skin, no blanket to protect me from the draft coming through the air conditioner. Other times I’d bring her into our bed where she’d fall asleep instantly, warmed by the heat generated by my wife Elaine and myself.
It didn’t take long for the garbage truck to enter her dreams. Even on nights when its presence was unscheduled, Sienna would wake up in a panic.
Into her room I’d go imagining it from her perspective – a green metal monster with white-hot eyes gnashing its metallic teeth, crunching its prey under the harsh yellow of streetlights.
“Scary garbage trucks” she’d whimper as I held her close.
“It’s just a bad dream, sweetie. A nightmare. Mommy has nightmares. Grandma has them. Pop-Pop has them. I have nightmares. It’s not real.”
And I’d once more find myself on the floor after she’d calmed and I’d placed her back in bed. After weeks of suffering such nights, my back tight the following morning, we decided it was best to just go in, hold her, tell her she was safe and leave the room despite her pleas and after a time they died down. The garbage truck still awakens her and she wails through the baby monitor, but once it’s through she’s able to return to sleep on her own.
Next up were “big bears.” I have no idea how they entered her dream state. We hadn’t read stories about bears. She’d seen bears at the zoo, but never their faces as they tended to just sleep the day away. I asked her teachers if they’d discussed bears. They hadn’t. It’s an unsolvable mystery.
We tried Mommy/Daddy magic in which we’d create a spell used to repel all big bears. Holding my fingers splayed like the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, I’d put on a face of deep concentration and shoot imaginary sparks all around the room while deepening my voice and saying, ”Go away big bears! Go away big bears! Go away big bears and crickets and praying mantises too! BOOM!” I’m not sure why Sienna wanted crickets and praying mantises in there, but who am I to argue? I just want us both to get a good night’s sleep. But still, her screams pierced the night and I’d find her sweaty, big beautiful brown eyes leaking tears.
When that didn’t work we told Sienna one of her toys, a cool light-up wand given to her by one of Elaine’s friends, had the power to repel big bears. “Make sure you keep the wand besides you,” I said. If you think you see a bear point the wand, light it up and yell, “Go away big bear!” We thought the wand would give her control and power over these ursus plaguing her nights. It didn’t. Nor did taping a sign to her door that read, “NO BEARS!!”
“Big bears trying to eat me!”
“It’s just a dream, sweetie. What does the sign on your door say?”
“No big bears.”
“That’s right. Any bear that wants to get into your room will read the sign, shrug and walk away because they’re not allowed in.”
You know what solved the problem?
One day I decided to show Sienna a bit of Yogi Bear on YouTube and she laughed and laughed as I’d do what I think is a really good Yogi Bear impression:
“Hey Boo-Boo! How’s about a pic-i-nic basket?”
“Big bear’s silly!” Sienna would giggle, a sound like tinkling glass that makes my heart swell. “Big bear wears a hat! That’s silly!”
Yogi cured Sienna’s bear nightmares for whenever she’d mention them I’d bust out my impression and she’d crack up. “Silly!! Big bear wears a tie!”
Now it’s scary owls trying to eat her.
Again, I have no idea where this came from. She has a Hedwig doll for which I paid $30 at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando and she LOVES it. During this nightmarish stretch of owl nightmares, she clung to Hedwig as if he were her savior. According to Sienna, he’s a “good owl” who in her dreams “protects” her from the scary ones. She carries Hedwig from room to room along with her precious scarf, always hugging and talking to him, but still, every night, I’m up at least twice trying to calm my little girl down and convince her that the owls in her head aren’t real. They’re just figments of her imagination morphed into bad dreams.
I even tried returning to pop culture by showing her this beloved Tootsie Pop commercial:
So now Sienna thinks owls are silly creatures that eat lollipops. Problem is now the scary owls won’t stop biting her until she gives them her lollipops so that plan backfired a bit. I’m not sure what to do next, but I do know that my daughter’s imagination is running at full speed with these nightmares and of that I’m proud and even a little bit jealous. What I do know is that Hedwig remains her protector in her dreams and is really working off that $30 I spent on him.
A version of Nightmares first appeared on Raising Sienna. Photo by David Gomes from Pexels
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