As a sleep consultant, I occasionally work with children that have nightmares and night terrors. Parents often don’t understand the difference and don’t know how to deal with them. I would like to give you a good idea of what they are, and the difference between nightmares and night terrors so you can better understand and help your child if they should occur.
Nightmares are dreams children have with disturbing content. Many children have nightmares as their imaginations develop. It may be a way of processing their thoughts and feelings about things going on in their lives that create worry or anxiety. They can occur due to a major event or life changes like starting school, parents separated, a new sibling, an accident or a death in the family. Something that would be very stressful to a young child or something that is going on in the child’s life that would be fearful. This generally happens to an older child of 3 years and beyond but can still happen to younger children. A nightmare takes place when a child is in REM sleep and it generally happens during the second half of their night’s sleep or right before early morning waking. The child will wake immediately and can remember what they experienced in the dream. They are often very afraid and upset. They need comfort and reassurance from a parent when this happens.
Here are some things parents can do to help:
- Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. This is often the cause and can be easily fixed by an earlier bedtime or longer naps.
- Eliminate any scary stories, including television, video’s and books especially before bedtime.
- Make sure there is a night light in the room, preferably a red night light so it doesn’t interfere with melatonin production.
- Give your child a sleep buddy or lovey if she doesn’t already have one that can comfort her in the middle of the night if she wakes and you’re not there.
- When she does have a nightmare go to her and comfort and console her till she calms down. Remind her you are close by.
- Remind her it was only a dream and not real. Talk about it briefly if your child is verbal enough and give her reassurances. Just make sure you let her initiate it and tell you what she is afraid of in her dream. You don’t want to put unnecessary thoughts into her head. The next morning may be a better time to discuss her nightmare in detail.
Nightmares are most common among 3 to 6 years old’s as they are developing their independence. It should not occur very often or there could be some underlying emotional issues that may need to be worked through. Some children may need help extra help by seeing a counselor to alleviate extreme stress and process their emotions.
Read part 2 next week about night terrors.