Liam had a nightmare last night. Woke me up at 3:17AM to report that “my room looks spooky and weird and I can’t shut my eyes because I’m scared.”

When he was in first grade or so, Liam had nightmares so regularly that we kept a crib mattress in our room on the floor–he could come in whenever he needed to but he was instructed to just curl up on the mattress and not wake up mommy. That last bit was key and it worked pretty well, actually–he had a refuge from the bad dreams and I got a decent night’s sleep.

It worked so well, in fact, that the crib mattress is still there–Caleb was sleeping on it last night, which is why I couldn’t just tell Liam to curl up on the dog bed (that’s what we call the crib mattress and yes, thanks, I know the boys are going to end up with some weird complex, so sue me).

So I hauled myself out of bed and staggered to the boys’ room, tucked Liam back in, and sat there with him while he fell asleep.  I’m sympathetic to bad dreams – I had horrible nightmares when I was a kid, mostly inspired by “Dark Shadows,” that totally campy vampire soap opera, which I only watched at my friend Marie Driscoll’s house.

I’d watch the show with Marie and pretend I wasn’t scared–and then at bedtime would get a total attack of the screaming heebie-jeebies.  I had to leap into my bed from a distance of about two feet, so that nothing under the bed could grab me–but first I’d shut and re-shut the closet door, turn on the night light, make sure all my dolls had their faces turned away from me…a whole ritual.

My bad dreams got so bad that my mom took me to the pediatrician, who prescribed a mild sedative. The medicine was yellow and tasted like lemon meringue pie–and it worked like a charm. With a spoonful of that before bedtime, I could avoid the rituals (although just to be safe I still leaped into bed from a few feet away). With my magic medicine, I could close my eyes and rest assured that I wouldn’t wake up screaming because something was coming down the hall to get me.

You know what? That medicine? Sugar water. A placebo, if you want the technical term.

My mother (and the doctor) lied lied lied. Right to my six-year-old face.

And you know what else? I’ve been doing the same thing to my kids, although without involving the pediatrician in fraud.

It started with Liam, on the nights when even sleeping in mommy’s room didn’t make the bad dreams go away: I’d fill one of those little plastic medicine cups with some lemon juice, maybe a drip of honey or sugar,  a little water (sometimes even food coloring, if I had some around), and call it “bad dream medicine.” He’d drink it down, wincing a bit at the lemon juice, and almost immediately snuggle back into sleep. Caleb same thing…sometimes he wakes me up to whisper that he needs some bad dream medicine so he can stop thinking about spiders, or rogue robots, or whatever it is that’s scaring him. Can you get addicted to lemon juice, I wonder?

The “medicine” has always worked, but last night when Liam had his nightmare, I didn’t offer it to him. He’s going to be ten next week, and I knew that he would know that the medicine was just lemon juice and honey, not a charm against bad dreams.  My days as a “magical mommy” are over.

It took me a while to get back to sleep.