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Annette Faamausili, June 17 2021

How to Tackle Night Terrors and Nightmares in Children

Have you ever been startled awake by the sound of your child screaming? Little else gets the heart pumping so fast in the middle of the night!

Night terrors and nightmares can be distressing for little ones and parents – particularly if you are not quite sure what’s going on.

While feeling apprehensive at bedtime is perfectly normal for children (even some parents are afraid of the dark!), this can become problematic if it interferes with their precious sleep.

If you’re worried about your child’s night-time fears, keep reading. We’ll discuss why nightmares and night terrors happen, what the difference is, and how to manage them.

Nightmares

All of us are familiar with nightmares. Unpleasant dreams affect everybody from time to time, and children are no different. Nightmares are particularly common in three to six-year-olds, with 30-90% of this age group having nightmares occasionally, and 5-30% experiencing them often.

Nightmares tend to happen later at night during REM sleep. When waking from a nightmare, children are usually aware of what’s happening and able to remember what they dreamed about.

Managing Nightmares

If your child is upset after a bad dream, a bit of reassurance and a cuddle will usually do the trick. You may wish to stay with them until they can fall back asleep. 

Because nightmares can result from anxiety or worry, it might be a good idea to have a chat with your child the next day to find out what’s on their mind. Addressing any concerns or worries they might have can make for a smoother night’s sleep.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are very different from nightmares. Children are not fully awake during an episode yet not fully asleep – they are partially aroused from deep sleep (stage 4). They may shout, scream, kick, thrash around, and appear terrified. Because they aren’t fully conscious, they may not recognise or respond to you when you are trying to console or calm them.

Often, children will have no memory of the event when fully awake later on. They may be able to vaguely recall feelings, but no great detail.

Night terrors differ from nightmares in that they commonly occur in the early part of the night – around one or two hours after your child falls asleep. Episodes may last anywhere from 5-30 minutes, and kids will usually lie back down and go to sleep without needing extra attention to do so.

Around 3% of children aged 4-12 experience night terrors, and most will have outgrown them by the time they hit primary school.

How To Handle Night Terrors

Because your child isn’t fully awake, night terrors must be managed a little differently. Your child may get out of bed or fling their limbs around. If so, restrain them gently to keep them safe until the episode passes.

Although it’s natural to want to wake up your child to stop the distress, this isn’t recommended. Research shows that attempting to wake them can make the episode last longer or result in a physical response that could cause injury.

Some children may run around the house during a night terror episode. Before bed, pick up anything off the floor that could be a hazard, lock doors and windows, and keep a gate across the top of the stairs if necessary. 

Night terrors are thought to occur more frequently when children are sleep deprived or have recently recovered from an illness or stay in hospital. A regular bedtime and consistent sleep routine can help ensure they are well-rested and prevent overtiredness setting in.

A fever can also bring on an episode, so take the usual steps to treat a high temperature if this is the case.

Tips For Managing Things That Go Bump In The Night

Here are some things that you can do to minimise the risk of bad dreams and how you can handle them if they do happen:

●      A calming bedtime routine can help avoid sleep disturbances. Avoid tv shows, movies and strenuous activity before bed (and avoid scary entertainment options altogether). Instead, sit down and read a book, tell stories or simply chat with them.

●      Listen to your child’s fears without being dismissive. Provide them with a safe outlet to talk about how they’re feeling.

●      Do reassure your child when they are afraid, but don’t reinforce fears! Telling them they are safe and checking under the bed may be helpful, but letting them sleep in your room with you every night is not.

●      Leave the door open, so they feel like you’re not too far away if they need you.

●      Provide them with a favourite toy or blanket for security. If you have a family pet, allowing them to sleep in the room with your child can be extra comforting.

●      Talk about happy things during the bedtime routine.

●      A soft nightlight in the room can help kids feel safe without interfering with their sleep. HERE is one of our most popular chosen night lights. 

●      Help your children to build resilience by teaching them coping skills. Describe the ways you handle being afraid, and read stories of how other children conquer fear. As part of the bedtime routine, you could introduce relaxation skills such as breathing, counting, and body scanning.

●      If the night-time episodes are dangerous, frequent (occurring more than twice a week) or having a negative effect on your child throughout the day, you may want to chat with your family doctor to rule out any underlying problems.

Night terrors, nightmares and bad dreams can be scary for everyone involved. Especially the parents or caregivers! So, if you have any questions or concerns about them, reach out to me today. I offer a range of sleep support options that can help the whole family get a good night’s sleep.


Written by

Annette Faamausili

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