Fear of nightmares is a little-talked-about contributor to insomnia—befriending dreams can be a lifelong skill for cultivating healthy sleep.
I admit it: I was a quirky kid. In addition to being among the pickiest of picky eaters in my entire elementary school and beyond—I also loved school (even homework), and I looked forward to bedtime. But as a mother and as a Certified Dreamwork Professional who listens to parents talk about their problems getting their kids to turn off their games and get ready for bed, I get it: Back-to-school and bedtime are two things kids generally want to avoid.
But kids need sleep more, and they need more of it than adults do. School administrators nationwide, including some in my home state of Massachusetts, are waking up to this fact and mandating later school start times for middle and high school students. So, as summer winds down and we prepare for back-to-school schedules, it’s the perfect time to revisit bedtime routines for the whole family.
In addition to the basics of bedtime best practices (unplug devices and start to unwind an hour before bedtime, make the bedroom an oasis of coziness and calm, and stick to a regular schedule for going to sleep and waking up), I’d like to offer a sleep hack from my five-year-old self.
One reason I was keen to hit the hay, as my grandparents used to say, was to close my eyes and be greeted with a “midnight movie.” Even though I often had nightmares, it was worth it for me to risk a few scary dreams in order to enjoy the whole range of strange, funny, and cosmic adventures my sleeping mind had in store for me.
As it turns out, befriending dreams can be a lifelong skill for cultivating healthy sleep. Fear of nightmares is a little-talked-about contributor to insomnia. Also, dreams, whether we remember them in the morning or not, help with mood regulation, problem-solving, and learning—all things that are crucial for kids who are getting ready to pick up their backpacks and return to class.
So, when considering how to get your family back on track for a healthy and well-rested school year, consider adding sweet dreams to the list of reasons to change into pajamas and prepare for sleep. Here’s how:
Keep a night notebook. Tucking our thoughts in at bedtime helps us sleep better. Kids can decorate a notebook and make a journal where they write and draw about how their day went and even what they hope to dream about before bed.
Add value. Valuing sleep and dreams as a family helps children view sleep as an important part of their day. In the morning, ask your child how they slept and whether they remember any dreams. You don’t have to analyze dreams, just listen and show an interest.
Welcome dreams. Drawing pictures of or writing about their dreams helps children build a lifetime habit of looking to dreams as a resource for playful problem-solving, strengthening imagination, and cultivating emotional growth and well-being.
Power up. Paying attention to dreams helps kids remember good dreams and can empower them to work through the emotions from difficult ones. Encourage your child to imagine alternative strategies for dealing with dream meanies, such as shrinking a monster down to the size of a pencil eraser or creating a magic forcefield to stay safe from a scary dream character. This can help them draw on inner resources and creative thinking when facing tough situations awake, too.