Happy Bedtimes – Understanding Nightmares

Blog provided by Together Trust. Together Trust champions for the rights and needs of care-experienced children and people with disabilities, autism and mental health differences.

Nightmares can occur at any age; however, research suggests that nightmares can be more common for young children, especially between the ages of 3 to 9 years old. Unfortunately, younger children do not always have the capacity to understand that what they are experiencing is a nightmare and this can be extremely upsetting for a child and also for a parent. Understanding the nature of nightmares and knowing how to support your child to deal with them can be helpful to you both.

What is a nightmare?

A nightmare is a realistic dream that is frightening and upsetting.  They create a strong but unpleasant emotional response. They are so intense that they usually wake you from sleep.  Nightmares usually happen during the last stage of the sleep cycle in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.  Longer periods of REM sleep are experienced during the middle of the night or the early morning, so your child is more likely to be woken from a nightmare at these times.

Nightmares are experienced differently by each child, but they commonly include scary elements, such as zombies, ghosts, aliens, monsters, aggressive animals or unkind humans.  Additionally, they often include such themes as being chased, trapped, threatened, attacked or bullied. 

What causes nightmares

It is normal to have an occasional nightmare, and frequent nightmares are more common in children. However, if nightmares are re-occurring it can be due to a range of factors. These include stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, genetics and side effects from medication.   

What impact does a nightmare have on your child?

During the actual nightmare your child is likely to be non – responsive, they are unlikely to use vocalisations, body movements or show signs of rapid breathing or sweating. The effects of nightmares are more prevalent for your child upon waking.  Once awake, they can become extremely upset and distressed. They may experience anxiety and have a sense of helplessness, and this can cause their heart rate to rise. The distress can stop your child from being able to fall back to sleep easily and can cause issues with future sleep onset as children can develop a fear of going to bed/sleep as they do not want to experience the nightmare again. 

Nightmare vs Night Terror

Nightmares and night terrors are often confused. As mentioned, nightmares occur during REM sleep, they can cause a child to arouse and become very upset. After a nightmare a child can remember the nightmare and can express its content (albeit sometimes reluctantly).  In contrast, a night terror occurs in non -REM sleep, typically occurring in the deepest parts of non-REM sleep which occur in the first half of the night.  Night terrors, unlike nightmares, cannot usually be remembered by your child. A night terror can appear to wake your child but they are actually still asleep; they may kick, scream, cry or thrash but this is actually occurring in a state of sleep. As night terrors are unusual night behaviours, they are classified as a parasomnia. Night terrors are more prevalent in children than in adults and are often grown out of with age. Night terrors are commonly more upsetting for you as a parent than your child.  If your child has a night terror, they will not remember it on waking.  It is important that you stay calm and wait for your child to calm.  Avoid talking to them or trying to stop them moving about, unless there’s a risk they could hurt themselves. Do not try to wake them – they may not recognise you and may get more upset if you try to comfort them.

Helping your child to cope with Nightmares

The dos

  • Acknowledge your child’s fear after a nightmare.  Let your child know it’s OK to feel scared. Avoid dismissing the fear or saying that your child is being silly, because nightmares can seem very real to children.
  • Provide your child with reassurance and support to calm after the nightmare before returning them to their own bed to sleep. This can be in the form of cuddling, talking, stroking or you could incorporate some deep breathing activities, such as 5 finger breathing. 
  • Select a sleep buddy for your child that they can take back to bed after experiencing a nightmare. This is to be used as a comfort to your child and it could be kept in your room until a nightmare is experienced so that it will have your scent. You can also provide a backstory about the buddy, either that the buddy needs additional protection from your child as they are scared or that the buddy has magical powers to keep your child safe.   
  • Find a time to discuss fear triggers with your child in a relaxed setting, not too close to bedtime. Nightmares can sometimes just occur but if the nightmare is re-occurring, it is likely to be caused by a stress trigger, for example the anxiety of starting a new school. Talking about the anxiety and providing reassurance can help to reduce the nightmares.
  • Educate your child with the reality of nightmares. Explain that nightmares occur at certain times of sleep when their brain is capable of dreaming.  Ensure that your child is aware that the nightmare cannot harm them.   
  • Check the bedroom environment. Ensure that it is not features within the bedroom that are causing fear, such as casting shadows or household noise. Adding white noise to the room can help to block out any other environmental noises. 

The don’ts

  • Don’t be tempted to allow your child to sleep in your bed after a nightmare or remain in the room with them until they fall asleep after a nightmare.  If either of these are undertaken, it can have a negative impact on your child’s future sleep quality as it can lead to night waking or difficulties with self-settling at bedtime.
  • Don’t reinforce the nightmare.  If your child is having dreams about a monster, for example, don’t go checking round their bedroom for a monster as this may send the message to them that a monster in their room is a possibility.
  • Avoid scary movies, TV shows, and stories before bed, especially if they’ve triggered nightmares before
  • Avoid screen time such as video games or social media at least an hour before bedtime.  These can hyper-arouse and stimulate the brain when it is time to go to sleep.

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