Children’s sleep and nightmares

Everyone is affected by nightmares at some point and some people experience them on a regular basis; for children, having a nightmare can be a terrifying and deeply disturbing experience as they may not be able to separate reality from their dreams. The following articles will provide information about nightmares and will offer advice on how to reduce the risk of your child having a nightmare and how to help your child if they have a bad dream.

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are bad dreams, which are often scary; it is fairly common for people to have nightmares, especially if they have seen a scary film or are experiencing negative events in their life. For children, having a nightmare can be very distressing and they usually wake up crying or screaming.

When do nightmares happen?

Nightmares happen when the mind is still active during the REM (rapid eye movements) phase of sleep; dreams also happen during this phase of sleep. The brain switches into this stage of sleep between phases of deeper sleep; this type of sleep is much lighter than non-REM sleep and it is easily disrupted. Most people have nightmares later on in their sleep, towards the morning; this is because the periods of REM sleep get longer as the night goes on.

Nightmares affect people of all ages, while night terrors only affect children. Very young children don’t understand that a nightmare isn’t real and they may be extremely distressed; they will start to understand that dreams and nightmares aren’t real around the age when they start school.

What causes nightmares?

It is not really known why people have dreams and nightmares, although there may be several factors which influence the type of dreams you have; these include:

  • Stress
  • Changes in their routine or family life
  • Reaction to an event or tragedy
  • Watching scary programs or films on television
  • Reading scary stories
  • Personal experience: dreams often contain people we know and we are often doing things we would normally do in everyday life.
  • Being overtired; this can make a child more likely to have a nightmare

In most cases, nightmares do not have sinister underlying causes; most of the time, they reflect what is going on in the child’s mind or what they have been talking or thinking about during the day. When children start school it is common for them to have nightmares about dinosaurs, ghosts and monsters because this is often what they learn and read about and what they talk to their friends about. Certain events, like tragedies in the family, moving house or having a new sibling may also increase the likelihood of your child having a nightmare.

How can I help my child?

When your child first wakes up, they may be very distressed; they may be crying, sweating, breathing rapidly or screaming. Younger children can’t grasp the fact that the nightmare isn’t real and they may take a while to settle down. In order to help your child settle, comfort and reassure them, give them lots of cuddles and try to calm them down; stay with them while they drop back off to sleep. You can talk to older children about their nightmare and reassure them that nightmares aren’t real and make them feel safe and secure. It may help to give them their favourite soft toy or blanket. If your child is still scared, you may want to stay with them or leave the light on in their bedroom.

If your child is having nightmares on a regular basis, try to talk to them about the content of their dreams; try to keep a record of what your child does during the day as this may help you to identify the cause of the nightmares. Keep reassuring them that the nightmare isn’t real.

If you are worried about your child because they are having disturbing nightmares on a regular basis and it is affecting their daily life, arrange to see your GP.

Is it possible to prevent nightmares?

It may not be possible to prevent your child from having nightmares but there are some steps you can take to help reduce the likelihood of them having an unpleasant or scary dream; these include:

  • Avoid reading scary books and make sure they are not watching scary television programmes before bed.
  • Tell them a positive, happy story before bed
  • Encourage your child to get to bed early; children who are overtired are more likely to have nightmares
  • Avoid stressful situations as much as possible; if you are going through stressful things in your life, try to shield your child from these as it may affect their behaviour and it will increase the chances of them having nightmares.
  • If your child is having nightmares on a regular basis, try to identify the source of the anxiety or fear by talking to your child about their nightmares.

Encouraging positive dreams and a good night’s sleep

Sometimes it’s impossible to prevent nightmares but there are steps you can take to encourage your child to feel comfortable and safe before they go to bed; this will increase the chances of having a good sleep and reduce the risk of them having nightmares:

  • Spend time with your child in the evening; bath them, read or sing to them, talk to them and cuddle up to them before bed.
  • Make their room a haven: make their room cosy and safe and ensure they have a nice comfortable bed to sleep in.
  • Tuck your child into bed each night
  • Give your child their favourite soft toy or blanket to cuddle up with
  • Relax during the evening; encourage your child to wind down throughout the evening so that they are ready for bed
  • Reassure your child that you love them
  • If your child is scared about going to sleep, reassure them that dreams and nightmares aren’t real; if they are still scared, leave a light on or stay with them for a bit until they are settled.

Guide to Sleeping for Mother and Baby:

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