TERRORS OF THE NIGHT

Remember, as a young child, hiding under the bed covers to avoid being eaten by monsters that you were sure invaded your room every night as soon as the light went off?

Well, the fact is nighttime can be scary for young children. As infants, many children are rocked or fed until they fall asleep. They feel comforted and safe. But when it is time for them to sleep by themselves their imaginations and fears may lead to nightmares and bad dreams. Bedroom monsters seem to feature strongly in the minds of young children.

Over a third of all preschoolers will have a nightmare at least once every two weeks. It is most common in children aged between 3 and 5 years, usually occurring toward morning.

When a child wakes after a nightmare they may feel scared and upset. Therefore, it is good to know a little about how to deal with your child’s nightmares so neither of you worry too much about it.

The cause of nightmares is not always known, but they can occur because of unsettling events during the day or some disruption to your child’s normal sleeping routine. Scary stories or television shows, or loud, active play just before bedtime aren’t helpful.

When comforting your child after a nightmare, be supportive, hold them close, and confidently reassure them that nothing bad will happen. Explain to them that what happens in a dream cannot really hurt them. Remember though that your child’s dream will have seemed very real to them so it isn’t helpful to insist it was not real — rather, listen calmly to what your child tells you and do not look worried.

Of course, it might be tempting to follow your child’s lead and assure them that the monster they are declaring really was under the bed has been chased away by you. The problem here is that if you pretend the monster is real your child may worry that it will come back as soon as you leave the room!

Getting your child back to sleep after a nightmare involves encouraging them to calm down. Show them how taking some deep breaths and letting their body go floppy like a rag doll will help relax them. If you leave a night light on your child can quickly work out that they are safe in bed in their own room if they awake from another nightmare.

A far less common occurrence than childhood nightmares is what is know as ‘night terrors.’ Usually found in older toddlers and preschoolers, night terrors may occur after a child has suffered a high fever or after a particularly busy or stressful day. They usually happen during the first few hours after falling asleep and can be quite distressing for parents, rather than the child.

Night terrors cause children to act as if they are suffering a terrifying nightmare, and may last up to 20 minutes. The child may speak or call out, their eyes may be open with a glassy stare, and they may struggle or push away anyone trying to hold them. Despite these often alarming behaviors, the child is not in fact suffering any distress, nor are they dreaming. Children don’t even remember night terrors when they wake in the morning.

If you do find your child experiencing night terrors there is not much you can do until it is over. Wait with your child for the night terrors to end, making sure they are not in any position to injure themselves. If your child has more than one episode of night terrors in a 4-month period, seek professional help.

PARENTING TIP

If your child has the same nightmare over and over it is important to talk with them during the daytime to see if anything is worrying them. Recurring nightmares can be a sign of distress or emotional upset. If you find your child is having a problem that you cannot work through, seek professional help.

 
Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.