Raff was a wonderful sleeper. Even when he was tiny he would settle easily and sleep deeply and soundly. As we entered each new phase I prepared myself for that to change but it didn’t. When his baby sister was born I was convinced her arrival would disrupt his sleep. I imagined her night feeds to wake him, for her early starts to signal the beginning of his day, but much to my amazement and relief, they didn’t. So soundly he slept that we were often all up and half way through breakfast by the time he’d rise and join us.
At 3 he was skipping into bed, ready for his story and asking for a little playmobil man to sleep with. Tiring as that last hour of the day is, I loved our little bedtime rituals and looked forward to them.
Something changed a few weeks ago. He went to stay at my mum’s house for his first overnight sleepover without Elsie. He was so excited about having his granny all to himself, about sleeping in the big bed and playing with all her toys without his baby sister to interfere. He counted down the days to his little adventure and finally it arrived. I waved them off, a little excited myself about the prospect of having just one baby to look after for a whole day and night.
He had a magical time. They went to see The Paper Dolls at the Puppet Theatre in Islington and he loved it. Together they made his very own paper doll chain and when he came home he insisted I hung it on the wall above his mantle in pride of place. But that night, at bedtime, he told me he didn’t want me to leave. He said he was scared of the tiger. I was taken aback. This was the kid who loved to play on his own, had never flinched if I left the room and was happiest in his own company often asking me to leave him to play undisturbed. Suddenly he was afraid to be alone. That night I held his hand until he drifted off thinking it must have just been a one off. But the next day he was scared when I left the room to take a shower and wanted to be on the same floor as me all the time, following me up and down the stairs.
With each bedtime, his fear intensified and I realised that to him it was all very real. I read the story The Paper Dolls to him one evening and in it there was a little pair of tiger slippers that the girl in the story played with. They became a real tiger in the book, albeit a friendly one, but something clicked and I realised perhaps this was the tiger that had become so scary in his imagination.
It’s hard to adapt to the change in him, to accept that he now experiences fear when once he was fearless. I dread bedtimes knowing there will be a lot of upset and reluctance but I try to be positive and upbeat throughout, showing no inkling this could be a stressful part of my day as well as his.
Over the weeks I’ve found a few strategies that appear to be helping and little by little he is settling easier at bedtime. I keep bath time really calm and playful so he feels relaxed. Then I try to make the transition from bath to bed as quick as possible – now asking him to brush his teeth in the bath so there is no stalling after. I’ve told him that even when he can’t see me, I am always with him, in his heart. We place his hand on his heart and I say that if ever he feels scared he’ll be able to feel me there and I will keep him safe.
Aside from this I’ve done all the obvious things – taken down the paper dolls, put the book away for a little while and told him there is no tiger in this house – tigers don’t even live in this country and even if they did they are friendly beautiful animals and we’ve nothing to fear. I’ve listened and respected his fear – not belittled it or told him he is silly – to him it’s all very real. And I’ve explained that after he goes to bed I will make myself a cup of tea, run myself a bath and be in it in the room next to him. This seems to give him most comfort – the idea that I will be close.
I’m hoping the tiger will soon be forgotten and he will feel secure again to be left alone. I’ve accepted that may take time and I know this is all a normal part of his imagination developing. If it hadn’t been the tiger it would have been some other character from some other book. Being consistent with the way we handle it will make it easier for him.
One thing I have learnt over the course of this journey is that things do change and we’ve never got it all nailed. My child can go from the boy who loves baked beans one day, to the one who thinks they are utterly revolting the next. He can also go from being a confident, secure child to one who approaches things with trepidation and caution. There doesn’t have to be a significant life event for this to happen – children’s minds and brains are developing so quickly and constantly their world can be overwhelming at times. We are not able to squeeze our babies into boxes and keep them there – adapting and being flexible and open minded has helped me as a mother and allowed me to let go and accept the way things are at each transition.