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1 year old traumatized by smoke detector

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Dr. Laura,
We have a 15 month old daughter who was recently traumatized when our smoke detectors (incorrectly) went off. She has been sleeping in her own room for three months, had recently finally started sleeping through the night (for about 3 days) and was asleep when it sounded. I ran in and she was terrified. She grabbed onto my neck and was shaking. They are hard-wired detectors and are very LOUD.

Once we got it all figured out, we let her sleep in our room because she was still very scared. That was about 4 days ago. Since then, when we try to go into her room for her usual bedtime routine she immediately cries and holds on to me or her dad and will not let go. She is still very, very scared. We've been letting her sleep with us but we need to figure out a way to ease her fear and get her back into her own room. Also, even putting her to sleep in our room, she needs both of us there with her now. I used to just nurse her to sleep. Now she nurses and then keeps rolling over every 30 seconds or so to make sure my husband is still there with her too (and she gives him a kiss which is super cute) and if he does try to slip out she screams.

Apologies for the long-winded explanation.

Just looking for suggestions on getting her back to sleeping happily in her room and helping her move past this little scary bump in the road.

Thanks so much.


Your daughter was terribly frightened. So terrified that she thought she might die. That fear is still with her, and is causing her to try very hard to keep herself safe, both from future incidents and from those big feelings of terror that are locked up in her body. She really doesn't want to feel them, and bedtime brings them close to the surface. So now she needs not only her usual nursing, but also her dad to protect her. I agree, it is sweet, and cute, but it is problematic. Not only because she needs you both at bedtime now, and because she won't sleep in her bed, as she had been doing, but because when children "stuff" their terror, it finds other ways to surface, resulting in rigid (Daddy MUST be here when I fall asleep) or even defiant behavior (which is a call for help).

What can you do? You can help your little girl relive her trauma, but with your protective presence. Tonight, take her into her room for her usual bedtime routine. She will cry. That's good, it means she is letting out that fear. Hold her, tell her you will keep her safe. When she begins to calm down, tell her the story of the LOUD scary smoke alarm that woke her and terrified her. This allows her to pull up that trauma, which is stuffed away in the dark, and make sense of it. It helps her to use her words and her logic to understand what happened intellectually, so she can put it in context. Of course, as when we re-visit any trauma, she will cry more, which means she has more fear to let out. Don't worry, that's all part of healing. Just keep holding her, and reminding her that you will always keep her safe, that the alarm is over, that she is safe. She will scramble for the door. Just tell her that she is safe in her room with you and it is time to feel good in her own safe room again, and she can cry as much as she needs to, and you are there to keep her safe.

Since she seems to feel especially safe when you are both there, it would be great if you and her dad can both be there for this little therapy session. That's especially true because your daughter is likely to get frantic. To her, this was a life or death situation. Why would you subject her to it again? She is risking death, in her mind. This will allow her to tap into and express all her terror to you. When humans experience fear, they writhe and struggle and sweat and get red and often seem to be crying without tears. If she does all this, hold her if you can, or have her dad hold her. That will help her feel safe. Sitting on the floor holding her snugly so she feels safe will probably work best. You will want to leave her legs free if she wants to kick and squirm. Since she will probably try to get out the door, the best thing to do is to shut it, sit in front of it, and let her push against your welcoming arms if she needs to.

Are you torturing her? No. You are providing a calm holding environment for her terror. You are holding the light and shining it on that horrible shadow that is haunting her, so it melts away. You are saying, "It is ok, you are safe. See? You can show us your terror. We will be your witnesses. We will always keep you safe. It was scary. Don't keep that fear locked away. Show us. Tell us." Once she "shows" you that terror and gets it out of her system, she will feel so much better. You will be able to resume your usual bedtime routine where you just nurse her to sleep without needing both of you there, and she will be able to sleep in her own bed.

Of course, if she wakes up in the night, you will need to be there pronto, and you may find yourself going through another crying session while she tells you again about that traumatic night. And you may need to go through this for a few nights in a row. But if you embrace her emotions and let her get them out, you will find that she can put this trauma behind her and move on. The hardest part, you will find, will be regulating your own emotions so you can stay calm and support your little girl to heal hers. Just keep breathing, and remember that the trauma already happened. Now, you are helping her heal.

Dr. Laura

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