Thing 2 has long been my troubled sleeper. She hardly slept through the night until into her third year of life, and has had a really rough time off and on with nightmares. Compare this to her sister who slept through the night at 3 months and has only called me a handful of times in her 9 years.
Thing 2 can go for weeks with no incident, and then I'll have three or four nights in a row where she's screaming for me in the middle of the night. Then when I get there and calm her down, she's insistent on telling me her nightmare, in detail. Usually after the nightmare, when she's 100% sure she's awake, is when the scary part happens. She sees something or someone right over her bed... or hears them right next to her bed... that's when the screaming starts. Some of the descriptions she's given me have creeped me out too, but my assurances that there was NO ONE in her room, and she had to have still been just a little bit asleep don't convince her one tiny bit. She KNOWS there was a monster/person in her room. And yes, the screaming is heartbreaking and she is truly frightened, and I am usually pretty sympathetic and calm and sometimes it does just work to hold her and pet her head and rub her back until she calms down and can go back to sleep. But over the years that too has worked less and less and my sympathy has waned a little.
When Hubby's out of town, my resolution to the nightmare problem has been to take her into my bed with me. I am not a co-sleeping advocate, but I am a ME SLEEPING advocate, and if my unconscious sleeping presence can calm her enough for both of us to get through the night, that is a concession I'm willing to make. Also it allows me to calm her down on subsequent outbursts by just reaching for her instead of tossing off the warm covers and sprinting down the hall to her room.
I usually have a large feather pillow in the middle of the bed which I spoon to compensate for Hubby's absence, and I put Thing 2 on the other side of it. I hold onto her waist or back or shoulder across the pillow. She doesn't like this much. She wants to be plastered to me. But she wiggles, thrashes, touches my face, and pokes me with her hands, feet, and elbows. So I need the pillow there as an insulator between myself and all that thrashing. It's my only hope of getting any sleep at all once she's in bed with me. When Hubby's in town and she wakes up with a nightmare, sometimes he goes and squeezes into her twin bed with her, and sometimes she joins one of us in our bed and the other takes her bed.
Thing 1 sleeps in the top bunk, by the way, and almost always sleeps right through the screaming and crying. Thank heaven!
Last night Thing 2 woke me up at 3:00 am. I stumbled into her bedroom, got her to stop screaming, and lead her back to our bed. I situated her on the other side of the pillow.
For the next hour we alternated her whimpering and reaching across the pillow to me, and me petting her and asking her to please stop wiggling and be quiet and go back to sleep. She'd lie still for a minute or two and I'd just start to doze off when she'd thrash and start over. She insisted that she'd seen something (with her sleeping mask on) and the only way she could make it go away was to poke it or wiggle at it. Yes, really. She was becoming as agitated with me for asking her to stop as I was with her wiggling, because, she insisted, this was how to make the scary stuff go away.
I believe myself a patient person, but after AN HOUR of this my patience was completely gone. I started pointing out that a tired mommy is an ANGRY MOMMY and if she couldn't let me sleep she had to go back to her own bed. Of course this gets her really crying and apologizing, and saying she needs a REAL HUG not just across the pillow. At that point I gave up, swapped places with her and the pillow, rolled her onto her other side so her poking appendages were mostly facing the other direction, and spooned her. Either I was exhausted enough to sleep through any further thrashing, or she slept the rest of the night without thrashing but the next thing I remember was my alarm going off.
Ever since a particularly bad nightmare in California the nightmares have been more frequent, and I have the bags under my eyes to prove it. Nightlights just cast creepy shadows. Stuffed animal protectors work sporadically, but apparently lose their powers. She wears a sleeping mask, which helped a lot for a long time, but it too seems to have lost its nightmare defense potency.
I have no real answers. I'm too tired to figure out answers.