When Children Hear Noises at Night

Practicing armchair child psychology.

Originally published October 14, 2011

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One of Muffin and Squeaker’s favorite books is Superhero ABC by Bob McLeod, in which the artist presents 26 superheroes, one for each letter of the alphabet. Muffin and Squeaker are very fond of Laughing Lass and Goo Girl, who, if nothing else, are helping them learn the letters L and G.

Another of the superheroes in the book is Night-Man, about whom McLeod writes, “Noises at night never make him nervous.” I thought of Night-Man last week and found myself hoping that he could swoop into our apartment to help out Muffin.

Allow me to explain. For much of the spring and summer, construction took place on the building next door, which meant there was a lot of noise in the back of our building right behind Muffin and Squeaker’s bedroom. Up until then, neither of the girls had seemed particularly sensitive to noises; once the construction got underway, on occasion they would be awakened during their afternoon naps. This led to the two of them, especially Muffin, becoming worried about noises. Whenever she hears an unfamiliar noise, she will say, “Noise!” and furrow her brow in worry. We’ve often had to explain where the noises are coming from and even assure her that, “It’s a good noise,” but she still doesn’t like it.

Well, last week, the heat went on in the apartment (even though just a week later we broke 80 degrees fahrenheit; go figure) and the radiator in the girls’ bedroom started making noise. We live in a building that is more than 100 years old, and the radiators are the old-style cast-iron type that hiss and sometimes clank. Fortunately, the one in the girls’ room only hisses, but the noise freaked out Muffin. At first, she accepted our assurances that it couldn’t hurt her, but then she started crying at the thought of being left alone with Squeaker in a room with a hissing heater.

We couldn’t turn off the heater, nor would we want to, as the girls will need to stay warm over the cold Brookline winter. So Nomi and I immediately took a few steps to calm Muffin down. First, Nomi switched the position of Muffin’s crib and the girls’ bookcase, so her crib would be as far away from the radiator as we could place it. That helped her a bit, but she was still upset.

So I had an idea, and I asked her if she wanted one of her friends — meaning a stuffed animal, of which Nomi and I have a large collection — to sit in front of the radiator, guarding it and protecting her. Muffin eagerly accepted this idea. Nomi suggested “Fred the Bear,” a large Folkmanis brown bear puppet that we have owned for many years and named after the writer Frederic Brown. (By the way, Folkmanis puppets can be purchased at and the , if after you read this you decide you need a bear of your own.)

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Muffin ran to get Fred the Bear, and we placed him on top of a clothing bin in front of the radiator, facing the offending noisemaker. We told Muffin that Fred would say, “Grr!” to the radiator, and we gave Muffin another stuffed bear, which we called Special Bear, to keep in her crib with her along with all the other friends already there.

For the most part, it seemed to work. Muffin was no longer as scared of the noise when we put her to bed. Squeaker, on the other hand, pretended to be scared of the noise when she thought it might keep us in their bedroom after bedtime. We saw through her ruse fairly quickly.

I have to admit that I was pleased with myself for coming up a plan to help Muffin be brave, but I wondered if my parenting instincts could be backed up by real science. So I asked Brookline psychiatrist Steven Kleiner about the technique I used to calm Muffin down and help her no longer be afraid of the noise. I know a stuffed bear can’t really protect her, but at the same time, I also know that the hiss of the radiator can’t really hurt her either.

Apparently, I did good. Kleiner said, “You have brilliantly, if simply, put your daughter in control of conquering her fear. The teddy bear is two things to your daughter: something that is soothing, and simultaneously something she can control. Fred is a meaningful and soothing proxy by which Muffin can overcome her fear of the radiator.”

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I didn’t have any particular insight into child psychology when I used this technique; all I was doing was thinking back to my own childhood, and how I often felt frightened by imaginary things, and how I used other imaginary things to fight those fears.

Kleiner made a further good point about what I had done. “Notice what is going on here: play! Children use play to conquer their fears (adults negotiate fears and fantasies more commonly through dreaming). Your example highlights precisely why play in children is so important — it helps them negotiate their anxieties and fears through representational props and proxies. Far from being frivolous, play is crucial if children are to grow to be confident, healthy adults. Well done.”

Thanks for the compliment, Steven. I just hope my instincts are up to the next minor parenting crisis, whatever it may turn out to be.

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This week’s column was written by Michael A. Burstein.

About this column: The adventures of two Brookline parents and their twin daughters, Muffin and Squeaker. This column originally appeared on the Brookline Patch website. Copyright 2011 by Brookline Patch.

About Michael A. Burstein

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