The Autistic Child (NOT)

Does this describe your child?

  • 2.5-3.5yrs old
  • probably male, probably firstborn
  • delayed language; doesn’t put words together yet
  • doesn’t use Yes/No correctly– can cry/temper tantrum easily
  • doesn’t call for help
  • doesn’t use Mommy/Daddy/own name well
  • very detail-oriented
  • walks on tiptoes
  • walks in circles, sometimes jabbering to self or no-one
  • spins car wheels, pokes blocks off, or otherwise repetitive play behavior
  • repeats your questions/statements
  • repeats sounds or scripts ad nauseum
  • easily distracted
  • bad eye contact
  • can’t answer comprehension questions
  • no gestures or pointing
  • few independent skills
  • doesn’t understand taking turns or people skills well
  • won’t drink milk, eat fruit, etc.
  • constipated all the time
  • difficult sleeper

Congratulations!  You have a fine, well-adjusted NON-AUTISTIC child!  No, I mean it.  Your child is likely a finicky, driven, bored and distracted little boy.  He doesn’t care about language, isn’t able to pick it up easily, and is therefore a tough cookie who is behind in some areas that he wouldn’t be if he had better language skills.  But for now, you have to suffer in the world of preschool, playgrounds, and other life adventures that really do require more English and social skills than your child has.  And guess what?  This is totally normal!  Stop worrying that he is on THE SPECTRUM because life doesn’t seem to fit his developmental timetable, and just hang in there until he’s 5.  Get a lot of structure and routine that works for you, adopt a rigid discipline ethic if necessary, and have faith that once the language kicks in, he will make up for lost time pretty much right away.  His behavior will also become less erratic.

How about this child?

  • 1-4 yrs old
  • picky eater
  • messy, clumsy, can’t dress self well
  • cries easily
  • strange phobias– water, vacuum, dirt
  • anxious behavior
  • taps or scratches self, has repetitive stimulatory behaviors (i.e. may still suck thumb, fidget with socks, etc)
  • seems lost in a group, or plays alone
  • deep, focused play skills; strange attention at times
  • doesn’t like to engage others
  • avoids conflict, checks out
  • can talk but doesn’t initiate or sustain conversation; people might not even know how well they speak
  • may speak to privileged individuals, in-depth about their favorite subject/question
  • unusual talents, or way ahead in an adult area
  • retreats to specific activities; self-soothing repetitive play
  • takes things apart to study
  • handles toys or household objects in peculiar (non-functional) ways
  • sensitive to smells, sounds, touch
  • “freak out” or “shut down” behavior
  • low muscle tone
  • allergies or inadequate nutrition

Congratulations!  You too have a sensitive, fearful, NON-AUTISTIC child!   Most people would like to diagnose your little guy with Asberger’s or Autism Spectrum, but more likely you have a misunderstood, sensory-sensitive little person.  This profile is less commonly complained about than the very first profile I outlined, but it definitely represents a portion of toddlers who are very quickly seen as at-risk for autism and usually packed right off to a specialist for a neuropsychological exam.  Whereas the first  profile I listed above is likely to see the child put in special preschool, perhaps with an ADD-type medication, this second profile is more likely to be medicated for childhood depression, anxiety, OCD, or reactive detachment disorder.  But kids come in all colors!  There is no need to panic because your little person isn’t the extraverted, sensible preschooler.  He/She may be an “old soul” or grumpy type who doesn’t fit in with the flashy world around them.  He/She probably needs a little extra nurture and coddling, as well as some occupational therapy or one-on-one play/floortime with a loved one.  Resist THE SPECTRUM curse!

** Note: Of course I am not against true autism diagnosis.  And I am not against checking out whatever symptoms worry you about your child.  I am just making light of the fact that “normal” is a wide range, and MUCH wider than we are told it is.  Usually we are told to worry, from experts, parents, or friends, because of the developmental scare climate out there.  Yet there is no reason to push the Panic Button just because your toddler or preschooler has some delayed or anti-social behavior.  Attention and special education might be necessary…as it always has been, in the case of small children who have individual tendencies and weaknesses.  But usually these are things you can do on your own or with limited intervention.  There is no need to put small children under a microscope and ship them off for multiple diagnoses so they can receive services from the state until they’re 21 because we’re afraid they’re all high-functioning autistic.**

How about this?


Does Your Boy Develop Unevenly?

After hundreds of comments from moms dealing with their speech-delayed boys who walk on tiptoes or have other such idiosyncrasies, it occurred to me to write another post on the boy/autism thing.  This time, with a focus on the developmental timetable.

I have another post on how boys develop differently than girls, but to recap an important point: boys often do not follow the timetables.  In fact, they are spotty.  They grow unevenly.  At times, they will hit the developmental mark right on the money.  Other times, they will be way off.  And often, they will have some abilities way ahead for their age—while at the same time, they will have glaring weaknesses way behind for their age.

For example, when my firstborn son was 2 going on 3, he could do 100 piece puzzles from memory.  No box, no pausing.  Just snap, snap, piece after piece together.  Like a robot actually.  He even found out, by doing the puzzles on top of each other, that some of them used the same template!  For a toddler who didn’t talk yet or even say “Mommy” or “Daddy,” this was strange to us. Then when combined with some of his habits like walking on tiptoe, spinning and crashing cars (but not really playing with them), memorizing long scripts from video, repeating himself, and not pointing or gesturing, we started realizing he had some of the autism signs.

In fact, when we read down the lists of symptoms, he had lots of them.  He had language delays, some social and emotional issues, and some of the sensory signs.  He seemed to have no imagination or interest in crayons or action figures.  But he seemed way ahead in spatial skills, knew all his letters and numbers etc., had great focus, loved to be cuddled, and generally seemed bright and charming.  His motor skills were great, and any non-verbal tests he got, he passed with flying colors.  Or things that needed one-word answers he could do.  He was way ahead in some cognitive areas and way behind in others.

Then my second son came along and was the mirror image of my firstborn.  Extremely verbal, very early, artistic and creative, but way behind in motor skills.  Emotionally unstable and very anxious, he had almost all the sensory problems common to autistic children, including choking issues, hatred of socks and tags, inability to cross the midline, and freaking out sometimes.  He didn’t bond well to others (except Mom) and couldn’t do puzzles or visual tracking activities.  So even though he was talking, imaginative, and sociable enough in his own way, HE was all over the charts.  And thus possibly autistic.

Then my third boy came along.  You know the story by now.  He hit some milestones right on time (i.e. walking), hit some way early (i.e. sentences by 19months old), and some way behind (i.e. toileting issues until his fourth birthday).  And he had some strange issues (i.e. severe fear of water).  By this time, however, we had trashed the charts.  We figured he was fine!  He didn’t have to love everything 3 year olds loved, he didn’t have to talk like 3 year olds talked, and he didn’t have to fit in some “autistic Spectrum” bucket because he had some emotional immaturity. And now that he’s nearly five, we’re SURE he’s not autistic!  (or any of our other boys either).

So this is my encouragement to you if your boys are geniuses at some things but embarrassingly behind at other things.  Do you know that book, “Men are Like Waffles and Women are Like Spaghetti”?    That book effectively describes how my little boys think.  Their brains are like waffles, with separate compartments for each kind of skill or knowledge.  They can dive in real deep within any one box, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to transfer over into other boxes or compartments.  The connections aren’t there, and there isn’t much infrastructure to help them build up their weaknesses. So they grow very unevenly.  It can be worrisome for a time because their strengths get stronger but their weaknesses seem to get weaker, especially when you start comparing them to other kids.  3 year olds tend to be the most diverse.  Sometimes therapy doesn’t even seem to make a difference, at least not right away.  Little boys just plunge ahead with their strengths (what they naturally get) and prefer to stay there, enjoying it and totally oblivious to your concerns that they aren’t “normal” all around.

Consequently it is now no longer surprising to me that my six year old son currently can take apart radios and electric circuits, but doesn’t understand that if he stands close to the stairs, he might fall down them.  My almost 5 year old son can talk to me about heaven and dying, and what he wants to be when he grows up, but still hates even the tiniest drop of water on him or will change his underwear or socks if they get a speck of dirt on them.  My seven year old son currently can pass second and third grade English and Math tests, on paper, but has a five year old’s vocabulary, says “What?” a lot, and uses awkward phrases all the time.  They are just not even developers.  Some things way ahead and some things behind.  Some normal habits and some strange idiosyncrasies.

In comparison to my girl, who is precocious socially and emotionally, and has met every deadline on time, there is just no similarity.  My conclusion: It’s ok for boys to be uneven and worrisome.  That’s just often how it goes.

“Mommy, I’m BORED!”

There is probably no other complaint that can get a mom so upset.  Especially during summertime.  When it seems like everything is already down and dumpy, this comment can be the one that shoots Mom through the roof.  Even if it isn’t actually SAID, the one year old toddler has a way of making this known.  It can be SOOO frustrating!

Here’s the good news: you don’t have to do anything about it.  Lots has been written on boredom and how boredom is the source of creativity: if you get bored with life, you look for something to do.  So the application goes: if your child is bored with what they have, they need to look for a new way to use it.  But most kids under three have a limited imagination (especially if they are special needs), so it can be hard to wait through the tantrum or trouble a bored little kid gets into when they don’t know how to use what they’ve got.  Kids over three have great imaginations, but it can be hard to get them to want to use it.

Still, if I could impart one lesson to a new stay at home mom, it would be: don’t give into to the Boredom Complaint.  I used to all the time, and I’d go play with my child.  And it made him more dependent on me than ever.  I used to think he’d never use his imagination if I didn’t jump in, but I found out that my jumping in actually stalled him.  I think he was four or five years old before he’d really just play.

Now that doesn’t mean parents should never play with their children.  I totally believe they should, and my husband and I have some playtime with our kids every day, even if it’s just a botched game of UNO.  When my first was smaller, I used to use play therapy with him for his special needs.  That was extremely effective.  And he had Early Intervention too, which was also play therapy.  However, giving into the Boredom Complaint is not play therapy.  It’s manipulation… you’re trying to get your child to settle down and be happy instead of taking the stereo apart (if he’s a boy) or whining around your leg all day (if she’s a girl), and so you give in.  I know lots of people who swear that their girls in particular won’t DO anything.  They have to play with them!  What else could they do?

Well, a young child has to be trained to play of course.  They’re not six year olds who are enthralled with their lego castles yet.  (YET!)   As irony goes, your child won’t really get into settled down playing until they’re school age and not allowed to play all day anymore =)  But that still doesn’t mean you should be playing with your little guy all day… park trips, play time, cooking time, game time, etc.  If you are playing with your child all day except for when they nap or watch TV, then you are eventually going to end up with one big TV watcher!  I’m not kidding!  You have to find a way to HANG OUT with your child without playing with them.  Some children are persistent and even more moms are cave-in’s.  but your life will be SO much better if you do.

This is particularly difficult with your first child because it’s just you and him/her.  You look at each other all day and you’re tuned into each other’s emotions, schedule, etc.  It’s like you overlap in some ways.  Moreover, a baby needs 24/7 care, so it’s difficult to know how or when you should start leaving your “baby” alone.  At one, do you suddenly dissociate?  No, that’s not what I’m saying.

What I’m saying is, my later children are better adjusted than my earlier ones because they grew up not being focused on.  They were paid attention to a lot, but not focused on. There’s a huge difference. My little two year old (fourth child) still mostly shadows me all day.  But that’s her choice.  She has three other siblings to play with, so if she chooses to follow me around, then that’s her problem not mine.  I talk with her and sometimes share things with her or make them into an interesting activity for her, but I do it when it’s right for ME.  I don’t do it because she’s demanding it.  And if she’s in my way too much, I send her away.  This might hurt her feelings at first and then she suddenly realizes that she’d LIKE to play lego castles with her brother.  In personality, she’s a lot like her cousin who also shadows her mom and grandmom.  But the difference is that they feel bound to their little girl like she’s sucking the life out of them.  They feel obligated to “play” with her, to “educate” her, and make her happy, whereas I feel free to do the things I’m doing (most of the time 😉  The main difference is in attitude: my little girl and I are HANGING OUT.  I love her and accept her.  That’s what families do.

So that’s my best piece of advice for mom and her two year old.  Hang out, but don’t focus.  This is difficult, but if you can pretend that you have other children around and a life to live while you’re shuttling just two year old Junior around, then do it.  Make calls, go to the mall (your favorite stores), and eat at the cafe you’d like.  Go to the playground if you want, but don’t feel obligated to suit your whole schedule around Junior.  Just make sure it’s Junior-friendly (i.e. no china shopping).  When you finally do have baby number 2, it will be the healthiest thing that’s happened to all of you.  But if you don’t plan on having baby number 2 until your first child is 3, 4, or 5 yrs old, you’d better start shifting into HANGOUT mode now.  I’m telling you: this is the number one thing that will change your stay at home experience =)

NOTE: for older kids, when they say “I’m Bored” you have three choices; either take away all their toys except for one ball.  Or throw them outside, even if it’s hot or drizzling.  Or make them work on a workbook or the laundry.  Any of these three options will get their imaginations fired up again in no time.

Accidents (Wet Pants)

Do you have a bedwetter?  I have a little four year old who has had trouble mastering the fineries of toilet training.  Not a lot of trouble, but just enough that when I drop him off in a kids class, I am wondering whether he’ll be embarrassed that no other kids in there need spare shorts and underwear in their cubby.

He’s got a couple problems.  One, he still thinks he’s a victim of his pee pee =)  I’m not sure if he realizes that he controls his own muscles, but at least he talks like he’s not sure about that.  “It just came out” he’ll say.  So while he has good bladder control (he only needs to go to the bathroom about six times a day), he sometimes doesn’t make it to the bowl.  He has a lot of those accidents where he’s standing in front of the toilet but the pee pee came before he could aim.

He still also wets the bed.  Not a lot, but about once a week or a couple times a month.  Sometimes he has just some “off” days where he has a couple accidents in a row and then he’ll go two weeks without one.  Having helped a different child of mine through sensory processing disorder, I chalk this up to the brain’s differences each day.  I never realized how much just one day can make things “on” or “off” for a preschooler.  So I understand that to be normal for a still-developing child.

That said, it still is frustrating!  Who likes cleaning carpets and sheets all the time?  Who likes walking into their child’s room with that familiar but pungent smell of urine in the morning?  Worse still, my four year old is embarrassed!  He’s not so self-consciuos as a first grader would be, but he still HATES wetting himself.  Or getting a little bit of stool in his pants.

So here’s some things we’ve adopted that have helped a little bit.

1) Make sure your carseat is water resistant and easy to take off.  (We’ve been using the Graco booster)

2)  Make sure the child’s mattress is waterproofed.  The easiest thing to get is one of those $5 plastic mattress protectors at Walmart.  The plastic is soft enough that the kids don’t mind sleeping over it, and then you can just use a Clorox wipe post-accident.

3)  Keep the child out of socks.  Nothing makes cleaning up accidents worse than urinated socks.  Plus, it ends up making more places on your carpet you have to clean.  (Some people make the same argument for shorts and swear by sweatpants for accident-prone kids.)

4) Keep a sticker chart for awhile.  My little guy was having trouble recognizing if he was going through a problem season or having a good season.  So we kept a chart so he could see if he was doing well or not.

5)  Reward and punish as appropriate.  I don’t believe in punishing accidents as a rule since a lot of training is biological and takes practice.  But since the accidents mainly started a couple months after toilet training was successful, my husband and I now use some kind of positive and negative reinforcement at times.  I give my guy a jelly bean if he wakes up dry or has some kind of small victory like clean underwear for the day, and I take away his special Lightning McQueen blanket if he has an accident overnight (mainly because it’s so puffy that I hate washing it!).   You can use the excuse like “Lightning McQueen HATES getting wet.  He wants to stay away until he knows his paint will stay dry.”  He then has to wake up dry for 14 days in a row to get it back.   If he goes 14 days without a daytime accident, I let him go to a special kids club on Wednesday nights that my older boys go to.  (Mainly because the teachers there aren’t equipped to deal with toileting problems).

6)  Probably doesn’t need to be said but, baths every day.  A new toilet trainer or accident-prone child really ought to have a bath every day until they have a strong record of handling their own bums in private.  Also teach washing hands after EVERY trip to the toilet.  I used to make my boys only wash after a bowel movement (mainly because it seemed like they were always peeing), but I have learned with my third boy that their hands rest everywhere when they go to the toilet… like they hold onto the bowl to balance while they get their pants back on, or the sink.  They might inspect their underwear to see if it’s dry but their might be a small stool mark in there from not wiping all the way, etc etc.  Plus, it’s good practice for being in public when they should wash every time anyway.

Spend a good amount of time teaching good washing habits and you’ll have a lot less worry in your life. (NOTE: it’s perfectly normal for little kids to wash too long, use too much water, too much soap, etc.  Don’t stress it until about a year later.)   Make sure they can wash without your help or it will be too annoying.

Reading/Spelling Toys & Workbooks (ages 2-6)

Recently I had a relative drill me on what kinds of educational toys we give our kids.  She has been trying to get her four year old to play independently and to read.  So I went through a lot of what we had, and I thought I’d post some lists out here just for fun.  Here’s the reading/spelling list—maybe it will spur your own imagination.

It’s a blend of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic activities since we’ve had one of each =)

Reading/Spelling Skills

  • Boggle Jr. (spells three and four letter words)
  • Melissa and Doug wood word spellers

  • Letter tiles (or you can use Scrabble tiles)

  • Build a Word or other Phonics tiles

  • Letter beads or blocks (string a word or stack your name)
  • Sight word magnets or word blocks for building sentences

  • Leap Pad sound magnets for the refrigerator

  • “The Talking Letter Factory” (Leappad DVD)
  • “The Talking Word Factory” (Leappad DVD)
  • “The Storybook Factory” (Leappad DVD)
  • Rock N Learn “Phonics” DVD, “Letter Sounds” DVD
  • Sesame Street “Sing the Alphabet” CD
  • Readers: All our kids learned to read with the “Dick & Jane” series first, then Dr. Seuss (“Hop on Pop” first). We’ve used other readers intermittently, but these were the tried and true.

  • Phonic matching cards (“Q” with a picture of a queen)
  • Uppercase/lowercase matching puzzles

  • Phonics flashcards (Panda on one side, P on the other)
  • Spelling flashcards (B + U + S  makes a picture of a bus)

  • Alphabet puzzles of different kinds (wood, foam–try a floor puzzle for gross motor types)

  • Create-your-own puzzles with kids names on them (cardboard puzzle templates found at art/craft stores)

  • prelined paper practice (kindergarten spaced) tracing or freehand

  • wipe-off markerboard or placemat with letters, numbers, and words

  • Chalkboard or whiteboard (kids love the different mediums! or try driveway chalk for even more fun)

  • Magnet letters/phonics/words, or building rods

  • Salt tray (for tracing letters and numbers in)
  • make letters/words out of playdoh or legos (kinesthetic learners love this)
  • signs or placemats in plain view

At different points we had alphabet toys from Leappad and other brands, but we ended up giving them away because they got old too quickly or we couldn’t stand the noises/songs anymore.


  • Explode the Code workbook series (A, B, C; 1, 1.5; secular).  These help teach phonics and reading three to four-letter words.  It is the best for thinking skills that I’ve seen.|928696|1016

  • Kumon workbook series (i.e Writing Words, Rhyming Words).  These help teach writing and spelling small words. Reading the words occurs in the process.

  • BJU Beginnings Worktext for K5 workbook (Christian).  This one taught two of my boys to read when we started before the fifth birthday and used it for several months.  However, you can’t use it with a child that does not write at all.  Some minor handwriting skills are needed.  So if you have a fine-motor challenged child, stick with readers or kinesthetic activities for another year.|1184610|60219

Some kids aren’t the workbook type, but if you give them one-on-one time with yourself at their elbow, it is pretty easy to get most kids to do a couple pages a day.  Start with just one, around age 3 or 3.5, and work up.

Also, lots of workbooks are out there which you can pick up at the Walmart, Costco, Barnes and Noble, or grocery store (Schaeffer, Modern Curriculum Press, Comprehensive Curriculum, Educational Teaching Press…).   Those are obviously fine.  The workbooks I listed above are actually academically approved ones which I used with multiple children because they were so good.

My Child is Three–should she be reading yet?

If you didn’t catch the sarcasm in this title, this post is for you!

I don’t mean this to be rude—it’s just that with the advent of Baby Reading videos and the cutthroat path of getting your kid accepted to kindergarten, parents start worrying that Johnny and Jane aren’t reading WAY too early these days.  And I don’t say this because I don’t believe in teaching little kids to read… all of my posts on reading should tell you that.  But I say this because I now have six-, five-, and almost four-year old in the house (all boys) and they are at very different stages in the educational arena.  A six year old is not a five year old, is not a four year old.   So everyone who is running around trying to get their four year old to be “kindergarten ready” may not fully appreciate the nuances.

I myself used to think that there were more commonalities between four- five- and six-year olds.  I certainly knew they were different ages but I thought the early ages of 0, 1, 2, and 3 were more distinct.  I think this was probably reinforced by the idea of “early education” or “early child development” which usually refers to the ages 3 and under.  You see dramatic differences in your child, especially physically and verbally, from 0-3, but then once kids reach the age of four, they start to even out.  Most are talking and running around the playground pretty equally with kindergarten kids, so you start to think they’re the same.  Then when your kindergarten neighbor boasts that she can read “Blueberries for Sal” all by herself, you think, “Eek!  Jane is still not blending two sounds together!”  And you start to worry.

Stop worrying!

I am going to tell you the real truth here.  The thing no-one seems to be telling you these days is that four-years old IS the time of learning to blend.  As long as your three-year old knows all her letters and sounds by her fourth birthday, you are on track.  A four year old should be able to start fooling around with worksheets that utilize letter sound activities in different ways: initial consonants, ending consonants, short vowel sounds in the middle, etc.   He or she will probably recognize her name and some common three-letter words.  She may be able to spell three letter words verbally if you are emphatic—“spell WET.  WWEhhT.”  He may sound out three-letter words on the page with help but not on his own yet.  This is totally normal.  So is being able to read a word in one book (i.e. “help”) but not the same word in another book.  This is probably because the brain is still encoding what “help” really looks like.  Or the font is different enough to throw the child off.  So patience during this fourth year is the key.  The ability to blend the sounds together develops some time during this fourth year so that by the time the child reaches their fifth birthday, they will probably be reading three letter words all on their own if you just keep doing what you’re doing.  And if they are not, another six months (5.5yrs) will probably yield a Dr. Seuss reader (three to five-letter phonetic words all at once).

If you are still doubtful, consider why kindergarten magically begins at age 5.  Kids seem ready for it way before, right?  Part of the reason why kindergarten begins at age 5 is because age 5 is the normal time for kids to learn to read on their own.  And if a child is five-and-a-half before he enters kindergarten, he is actually at an advantage… the four-and-a-half year old who is sad because her birthday doesn’t make the cutoff will actually grow a significant amount in just one more year.  A handful of two and three year olds can read before they turn four, but that is uncommon.  Don’t take that as your guideline, even with all the pressure to do so.

At four years old, your child should also be developing SOME writing abilities.  Now when I say “some,” this is relative.  Some four year olds are very detail-oriented with fine motor talents.  They can write uppercase and lowercase letters pretty well.  Other four year olds are still using the salt tray to trace big capitals with their pointer finger.  This is still ok.  Or they may be able to draw a huge “A” with chalk but not on paper.  With practice, this should change around the fifth birthday–a five year old should be writing his letters on paper even though the size and spacing is probably all off and some letters will be reversed on occasion.  Remember the handwriting in Winnie-the-Pooh?  Where “WOL” is scratched over Owl’s doorpost?  That is the kind of handwriting your five-year-old will probably have for awhile.  Handwriting develops a lot in the fourth and fifth year.

S o just keep practicing.  What you’re really looking for is “correct” handwriting by the sixth birthday.  If your child enters first grade still not being able to print the letters right (and print on the line, with spacing, etc), he or she will be just slightly behind.  A six year old’s handwriting will still need work, though.  Penmanship (manuscript) should begin in the fifth year and continue onto the sixth to make sure that your child is forming the letters correctly.  Until this is mastered, hopefully by age seven, they are not ready for cursive (typically around 8 yrs old).  While there is not as much pressure for kids to write as early as they read, the pressure is still there—with cursive instruction sometimes being pushed in first or second grade.  In the old days, seven and eight year olds were still practicing proper pencil grip, paper position, and penstrokes in mid-air.  And the handwriting benefited.  So don’t succumb to perfect writing Nazis too early either.

**Note: So many people have asked me about Teaching Your Baby to Read videos.  While I don’t discourage them directly (anything educational for babies is fine), I don’t believe in them either.  I have never seen a baby reading—no point anyway since they can’t talk about it.  So I don’t think the results of baby videos are real reading.  Nor do I think they are healthy to expect.  Not only should babies be developing other things rather than reading during the infant stage, parents shouldn’t have hyper-educational expectations that early.  The one on one interaction time is great, the memory and sight-recognition is great.  But until I see a baby reading Dr. Seuss, I remain highly certain that real reading should and will take place sometime between four and six years old regardless of baby videos.

Nighttime Fears

It is very normal for kids 2-4yrs to have fears at nighttime…the dark, the shadows, the boogeyman, etc.  And little kids can be very creative in their fears!  My younger brother used to be afraid of trains coming in through his window!  I remember being afraid that my raincoat hanging on a hook in my room turned into a little girl who would come closer to me, to get me when I closed my eyes.  And my father confessed to being afraid of Captain Hook’s crocodile who swallowed the clock… he couldn’t stand any ticking sounds until he was about 10!  Knowing that times haven’t changed much, kids who watch Disney movies might be afraid of a particular villain living in their closet or visiting them in their dreams.  And lots of kids are afraid of alligators or monsters under the bed.

These things are totally normal.  But when the fears start interrupting “normal” sleeping habits, it is time to take action.  If you can intervene early, you often stave off fears getting worse.  However, be prepared that many fears don’t go away overnight.  They are largely outgrown with time.  But there are things you can do to manage nighttime fears.  Being practical and creative is the key.

1.  Adjust lighting. Some kids do well with nightlights, others don’t because the light creates more shadows which are scary.  Ask them.  Some kids like having a flashlight by their bed, which makes them feel powerful in the dark.  Or, get an energy efficient lamp and let them sleep with the light on.  Don’t be afraid that they’ll need it forever; when they’ve clearly outgrown the problem, they’ll probably want it off themselves.

2.  Add soothing music. Many stereos can be set on “repeat” and this is something to take advantage of if your child wakes up a lot during the night.  Lullabyes, some classical music, or kids songs CDs can be a distraction from fear when a child opens their eyes in the dark… they don’t hear funny sounds outside, and they tune into the words instead of letting their imaginations run wild.

3.  Add to the bedtime routine. For my brother who was afraid of trains coming in through his window (for no logical reason whatsoever), my mom invented the “Train Vanishing Spray” with a simple spray bottle and water.  She used to go around and spritz his window every night saying, “Trains, go away!”, before bedtime–even letting my brother do it.  A little bit of “magic” plus kid’s control can go a long way in making fears leave.  Try the “Vanishing Spray” for alligators under the bed, villains in the closet, or other things which are irrational.  If your child is trustworthy, you can even leave the bottle with them overnight to use if they wake up scared (most two year olds can’t handle this, but a 4 or 5 year old can).  Other things which work at the bedtime routine include saying a special prayer or chant, reading a “vanishing” story each night (you can make one up yourself that incorporates the child’s actual fear and conquering hero), or having Dad play “ghostbuster” for a couple minutes (with a special tool, or superhero complete with cape).  A prayer or chant works well because the child has something to say and try when they wake up by themselves in the middle of the night.  If you believe in God, tell the child that God is more powerful than any other bad guy on earth, and to ask God for help if they wake up scared.

4.   Add a stuffed animal or prop. Lots of kids start appreciating a stuffed animal friend at this age, if they are scared.  Maybe even a couple.  If you can play it up, that the animals will protect them and keep them safe, it can really work.  Try a stuffed lion or bear (that is big and looks cute).  Or you can employ a “magic” protection charm, like a flag over their bed, a canopy or bed tent, or a new monster-proof blanket on their bed.  Even magic PJs or underwear can make them feel safe.  These things have the added bonus of keeping little kids IN their bed because they think it’s the “home base” where they’re safe.  You want to make their environment cozy and personal.

5.  Add a person. If you have multiple siblings and are open to the idea, move someone else into your child’s room.  Even a baby can make them feel safer because lots of kids are just afraid of being alone when they wake up.  If the baby wakes the other child up a lot, it’s annoying but this can actually have a de-mystifying effect on nighttime… it seems like daytime, not so scary.  If you do not have  a sibling you can move in, consider reading in their room for 10 minutes while they try to fall asleep (don’t stay forever, though).  Then you can come in and visit them, kiss them, before you go to bed yourself.  We have found that our kids really enjoy these late night visits.  Sometimes they don’t even wake up, but sometimes they do and so they know Mommy and Daddy are still watching out for them at nighttime.  You can even put a picture of you and Daddy in their room, which is often very comforting.  Just your “presence” wards off the monsters.

6.  Evict all scary stuff out of their “diet.” I am so amazed at how little kids’ culture (even for 1-4yr olds!) is entrenched with fear elements–monsters, ghosts, witches.  Like it is supposed to be fun and healthy.  In reality, it is setting them up for bad dreams and fears because preschoolers may know (when they’re awake) that they are just pretend, but in the nighttime, that isn’t convincing.  And I promise you that they can’t be afraid about things they’ve never seen.  But how many kids can go through toddlerhood without being exposed to every kind of scary stuff?  And little kids are so visual—anything that looks scary on the screen or page can bother them.  This is attacking a sacred cow for some, but if your child is scared about something it is best to eliminate it even if it is inconvenient.  This includes favorite movies, shows, books, and characters.  Even the Halloween party, birthday clown, or visiting Santa if necessary.  A lot of moms and dads feel their kids need cultural icons, but I can promise you that taking even seemingly innocuous things out of my kids’ diet went a LOOOONG way towards keeping the bedtime fears low.  Now you can’t prevent a wild imagination (like trains through the window), but you can take out easy sources of fear: witches, dragons, ghosts, wizards, villains (even the beloved Nemo or Wall-E videos, who have scary elements), snakes, sharks, wolves, alligators, pirates, big fires, and “bad guys.”  Tons of kids shows have heroes with “bad guys” but if this is making your child insecure (i.e. they are having bad dreams), it might be worth taking it out for awhile.  Be protective.  Guard your child’s sensitivity.  They have lots of years in the future to enjoy media and make-believe.  Even if you think there is only a small chance that something is scaring your child, take it out until you are sure they can handle it.   There are plenty of friendly alternatives like Dora and Wonderpets to get addicted to =)

7.  Rehearse victory during the day. Have your child practice victory over their fears during the day.  This may include role-playing the superhero who can conquer ghosts and boogeymen.  Or it can include doing a room inspection (for your realists) and examining things that look scary in the dark.  Have them adjust things that seem creepy, like a hook on the wall or picture frame that casts a long shadow.  If your child has more phobic fears (i.e. non-imaginative, like the vacuum, trains, toilet), you can work on these during the day too.  But be aware that confronting their fears might cause worse bedtime experience.  Lots of kids’ nighttime experiences are related to their daytime experiences, even if the connection seems fuzzy.  But the more secure the child is during the day, the better that will translate over to nighttime.   It’s best not to rush it– it depends on whether you feel like confrontation will help your child or just make it worse.

8.  Examine other possible sources of stress. Again, children aren’t so linear that stress is contained… lifestyle stress can definitely be encouraging nighttime problems.  “Stress” for a toddler or preschooler is relative, though, so be sure to account for things which are objectively stressful (Mommy is struggling, Daddy lost his job, parents are fighting, etc) and subjectively stressful (child is having trouble toilet-training, preschool is difficult, he or she was forced to eat vegetables tonight).  By having an open mind and thinking about what a little child could be stressed about, you may be able to pinpoint strategies that will help reduce it… postpone the toilet, talk to the preschool teacher, skip the force feeding.  Some little children are very precocious and pick up on their parents’ stresses, so don’t be beyond having “adult” talk in private or putting on a happy face for awhile.  I am not saying to neglect your own health; I am saying that an astute 3-yr old can sense when things aren’t right.  A lot of times this precociousness shows in your preschooler asking big questions: “What happens when we die?”  “Are you going to go away, Mommy?” etc.  And watch the TV shows you are watching around your kids… even Oprah or the news can be causing illogical stress for a little one.  Sometimes they see or hear just one tiny bit which is disturbing.  Tape it and watch it later.

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Now these tips are just things for normal nighttime fears.  If your child has a bigger problem like night terrors or sleepwalking, consult a professional.  But the majority of things can be managed with a little patience and practicality!  Don’t let accommodations rule your life (i.e. moving the child back into your bed), but do make accommodations and worry about weaning off props later.  A year or two of sensitivity–especially during the ages of 3 and 4–will pay tremendous dividends.