Many of us remember waking in the night thinking there was a scary green monster chasing us around the park or that the bogey man was coming to get us…this was us having nightmares. I for one can definitely remember waking up fearing something terrible was in my room and then running to my mummy in tears for comfort. Now your child may be experiencing nightmares and you may be wondering how to handle them.
It is a good idea to learn a bit more about nightmares first and then we can understand how best to tackle them.
First of all nightmares are VERY different from night terrors. Nightmares will occur at completely different times of the night to night terrors and you will be only made aware of the nightmare after it has occurred. Nightmares will occur when the brain is very active, the REM stage of sleep. REM sleep occurs at different intervals during the first 7 hours of sleep. Your child will be asleep, "paralysed" as it were and these nightmares will be recalled by your child. They can be extremely vivid and memorable as we all know. They are extremely normal so don’t be too worried about it. It is a sign your child is showing signs of human survival believe it or not! A Swedish scientist did a study into nightmares and found they are very “cultural”. His findings found that for example in Japan many children had nightmares about earthquakes and tsunamis and children in the United States of America often had nightmares about guns and shoot outs. Nightmares can be very short lived and infrequent however, if you find they are often recurring and perhaps have been triggered by a traumatic event you may need to seek professional advice from your GP. Now when we wake in the night from a nightmare we know it was a nightmare, not real, we may still feel a little “freaked out” by the event and need to switch on a light or snuggle up to our partner but when a child has a nightmare, to them it is real, they may be very confused and depending on the age of your child and their ability to understand they may not grasp that is was in fact a nightmare, a bad dream, not real. We need to comfort them as much as we can, help them back to a state of calm and relaxation whereby they feel “safe” enough to go back to sleep.
Top tips to help your child through a nightmare…
1. Have your “monster spay” at the ready. Some children love to have a little bottle of “magic potion” next to their bed they can spray around the room at bedtime. You can easily make this with a little spray bottle from your local pharmacy and fill it with water, a drop of food colour and even a little bit of perfume or essence like lavender or eucalyptus. Make a label to stick on the side of the bottle indicating “ monster spray”
2. Be there as soon as you can to support and comfort your child upon waking from a nightmare. Stay with them until they have fully calmed down and relaxed.
3. Stay calm yourself, no point in scaring them more with your fears and loud voices in the night.
4. Offer a lot of reassurance to your child, don’t talk about the nightmares during the day
5. During the day at a calm quiet time where there are no distractions from other family members, mobile phones, screens or rushing here and there, talk to your child, ask them if they have any worries or concerns right now. Tell them they are loved and you are there to support them, to listen and help them through any worries they may have.
Preventing nightmares can’t always happen but there are something we can do to stave them off...
1. No scary movies/cartoons/stories before bedtime. Scooby Doo even scares me sometimes so how do you think it may affect your 4 year old..?
2. Ensure your child is getting adequate sleep for their age. Overtiredness and sleep deprivation can also be a cause of nightmares.
3. Keep your day and bedtime routine the same every day if possible. Having a different erratic schedule every day will leave your child feeling confused what is happening next and uncertain of the next events
4. Is your child on any medication? This may be contributing to nightmares so it so worth revisiting your medical practitioner to enquire some more.
5. Any stressful events happening in your child’s life may also be a trigger so do talk to them about what is going on, seek advice and help from your GP, read appropriate picture/story books to help your child understand what is going on and help them make sense of it all.
6. You may even like to have a “worry box” in your home. It could be in the shape of a fairy who takes the worries away. You can help them write down any worries they have, pop them in the box and you can then either talk about their worries at your calm time (not before bedtime) or just be more aware of them yourself and be able to prepare on how to discuss the worries they have with them.
7. Having a nightlight in their room or the hallway may help make your child feel more relaxed and less afraid of the dark. Always use a red light as not to interfere with the sleep hormone melatonin.
Please feel free share this article with a friend whose child may be experiencing nightmares.
Your Paediatric Sleep Consultant