Every parent hates the experience of their young child waking suddenly with a bad dream. The child is terrified and everyone’s sleep gets disrupted. What’s going on? We just finished Halloween so time to “un-frighten” this issue.
Nightmares, of course, are scary, unsettling dreams that we all experience from time to time. In young children, they tend to occur in early morning hours during rapid eye movement (“REM”) sleep. The child will wake up frightened and tell you their scary experience. It is not uncommon for the same scary dream to recur. With night terrors , the child will begin terrible screaming, often with eyes wide open but not really awake, and will have no recollection of the dream or the experience upon awakening. With the memory of the bad dream it may be difficult for the child to return to sleep but given that there is no such memory with night terrors, returning to sleep is usually less of a problem there.
Both conditions are common in toddlers and young children. Unless they occur frequently there is no cause for alarm. Night terrors appear to occur in families.
The best treatment is prevention: a good bedtime routine; avoid overstimulation–reading stories is better than vigorous physical activity; limit video entertainment–stop video games > 1/2 hour before retiring; avoid large snacks, especially high sugar snacks–a small cup of water or milk is better.
To help your child after a nightmare, keep it simple–hugs, reassurance that you are there and that dreams are not real. Talk about pleasurable incidents from the previous day or anticipated ones in the days to come. Distract the child with whatever toys or happy objects are at hand.
Please note that if you take your child to bed to sleep with you after a nightmare you likely will set yourself up for difficulty getting them back to their own room on subsequent nights. If you must, better to have your child sleep next to you on the floor with a pillow and blanket–no mattress, to encourage them to return to their own room when things calm down.
With night terrors, things are a bit different. Gently wake the child up from the sleeping, shrieking fit. Quickly reassure them that everything is fine; a quick trip to the bathroom or diaper change (as applicable), half a cup of water to drink, and back to bed. In both situations, keep it short and sweet–dragging it out only disrupts sleep patterns further.
As stated above, if these episodes begin to occur on a more regular basis there MAY be some underlying issue–in health, lifestyle, or social situation– that must be uncovered and addressed. Give me a call in that situation and let’s try and figure it out together.
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