It's a scene that overwhelms new parents and frustrates seasoned ones: your child screams from their bedroom in the middle of the night, waking you up while you crawl into the room and find them sobbing and scared of a nightmare. Nightmares can wreak havoc on a family's ability to get restful sleep and could cause the child to resist bedtime unless they are in mommy's and daddy's bed, and even while the lights are on.
While we can't prevent nightmares from occurring in the first place, there are steps we can take to better comfort our children after a nightmare and set bedtime times that experts believe will reduce the frequency of nightmares.
What are nightmares?
A nightmare is a scary dream with an imaginary danger that often causes children to wake up feeling scared and in need of comfort. Although infants can have nightmares when they are young, experts say that nightmares usually begin between the ages of 3 and 6, are common in children, and decrease after the age of 10.
Nightmares typically occur after the child has slept for several hours and is in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase. During the REM phase, the brain is particularly active in processing vivid images and new information for learning and memory. If a child wakes up from a nightmare during the REM phase, the alarming images of the bad dream are still fresh and may seem real to the child.
Nightmares are different from night terrors, which are more serious but less common. Unlike nightmares, night terrors occur in the first few hours of sleep and make children struggle in their sleep. Night terrors also differ from nightmares in that it is difficult to wake a child out of a night terror and when the child wakes up, they have little to no memory of the episode that caused the terror.
What causes nightmares?
The little exploration of children’s nightmares has not uncovered the exact cause of the nightmares. In fact, nightmares can occur even though there is no identifiable source. However, experts advise that certain factors can increase a child's risk of having nightmares, especially:
- A stressful situation or a significant change in your home or school.
- Sleep deprivation or an irregular sleep routine
- Scary TV shows, movies, stories, or other disturbing stimuli.
- A fever
- Certain medications
Experts note that the theme of a nightmare often reflects the child's stage of development. For example, toddlers can have nightmares about separation anxiety, young children can have nightmares resulting from increased responsibilities at home or school, and older childhood dreams can depict scenes from a frightening movie they have just seen or an exciting book you just read.
Tips to comfort your child after a nightmare.
Experts encourage parents to do the following to calm a frightened child after a nightmare:
- Immediately calm and comfort your child. Children who wake up scared from a nightmare need to know immediately that they are safe. Make sure that your child is safe and that the nightmare wasn't real. Physical contact such as hugging or rubbing your child's back after a nightmare can also help reduce anxiety, as can sitting with your child in their bedroom until they are calm enough to go back to sleep.
- Chase away the darkness with light or a cuddly toy. Annihilate your child's nighttime horror by turning on a night light or dimmer switch in the nursery. Give your child a favourite teddy bear or blanket to hold to help them calm down and go back to sleep.
Do not encourage your child to believe in imaginary beings. If your child is nervous after a nightmare about monsters in the closet, open the closet door if they insist. However, resist asking your child to use a magic wand or lightsaber to make the imaginary creature disappear, for example. While such monster tactics can provide temporary relief, they also confirm that the monster exists and thus can exacerbate the fear of bedtime in the long run.
- Give children a sense of control over their nightmares. To ease the nightmare, read your child's stories in which a character overcomes their fear of nightmares. Parents can also defuse the terrible aspect of a nightmare by drawing a picture of the terrible picture, tearing it up, and throwing it away.
- Use positive images to replace ominous ones. Another way to unravel a nightmare from your child's mind is to have your child focus on positive images. Replace troubling pictures by reminding your child of a happy memory or exciting future event.
Set the stage for sweeter dreams by making your child's bedtime a quiet experience. Your child will get a better night's sleep and as a bonus, you will too.