Dr. Carr Toddler Sleep Training
I recently worked with the parents of a 15 month-old who had been taking up to two hours to settle down at bedtime and was waking frequently during the night.  After reviewing different approaches during our consultation the parents had settled on using a method which would involve going in periodically to check on their son, but without picking him up.
 
After a few days of using the method and seeing great progress (including a lot less crying than they had experienced when they were picking him up) they sent me this question:
“We just read in Dr. Ferber’s book [Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems] that one year olds do have nightmares and need consoling when they wake up.  Can you please give us your thoughts?  After reading that we feel uncomfortable about letting him cry, if he really sounds upset, without picking him up and consoling him.  What do you think?”

Here was my response:

I can see how you would be concerned after reading that. However. I find Dr. Ferber’s chapter on nightmares a bit fuzzy and misleading.  While he is knowledgeable on a great many things, he is not a psychologist, psychiatrist or neuroscientist, and he does not do a very good job of distinguishing the difference between dealing with a preschooler VS a baby or toddler when it comes to this topic.

 

He implies that dreams/nightmares develop after one year, when in fact we all start dreaming at birth, and there is evidence that we even dream in-utero.  Likewise, we dream more as newborns than at any other age, and the amount of time we dream steadily decreases throughout the lifespan so that babies dream more than toddlers, toddlers more than preschoolers, etc.

 

However, our cognitive development is such that dreams do not seem to impact us as much when we are younger. It is not the dream in itself, but our cognitive interpretation of the dream and our memory of it that affects us after we wake up.  So while a young toddler (as well as an infant) may in fact have dreams with unpleasant content, they do not seem to “stick” in the way they do with older toddlers/preschoolers, who begin to develop imagination and symbolic thinking.  Note that the entire section of Ferber’s book on how to console after a nightmare is written for a child who can describe his dream and the fears related to it (in other words, a child at least 2 years or older).

 

All that said, there is really no way to tell 100 percent whether a young toddler or baby is crying because of a nightmare.  But I can tell you that after well-implemented sleep training the frequency with which kids your son’s age wake up crying becomes very rare. This leads me to conclude that even if nightmares are playing any kind of role, it must be a very infrequent one.   The more likely culprit is chronic overtiredness,  As he continues to get more sleep you will see less and less of this. And on the practical side, since you cannot tell, this would mean that you would have to pick him up every time on the unlikely chance that he is crying because of an unpleasant dream.

 

I hope that helps.  Let me know if you have any further concerns.

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For clarification’s sake I would like to mention that I believe Dr. Ferber’s advice for dealing with nightmares is very appropriate for older children who are able to talk to you about their bad dreams.   Staying with your child to reassure them and give them the extra comfort they need is the right thing to do in that case.

And if it’s a frequent occurrence for your preschooler or school-ged child, take a look at what’s going on in the daytime.  Are they watching media or reading books that might be raising their fears?  Are they dealing with any major changes or other challenging situations, like starting a new school?  Finally, are they getting enough time for sleep, or has bedtime started to creep a little later than you intended?  Being overtired will make your child more likely to stay upset after a fleeting bad dream, so make sure you’ve got that base covered, too.

 

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