Written by: Cally Worden
As I kissed my kids goodnight and padded down the landing to bed I felt all warm and fluffy inside. Precisely one minute later I was haring back down the landing like a loon in response to a blood-curdling scream from my then-two-year-old son. In his nightmare, a monster was looming over him, large, slobbering, and growling menacingly. It took fully six weeks of patient reassurance before he would settle again at bedtime, and even now, 18 months later, he still occasionally calls out in alarm if he awakes abruptly from his slumber. How common are nightmares and night terrors?
Most children experience nightmares in some form between the ages of three and six. Mercifully, not all are as extreme as the one I’ve described above, but nevertheless they can be distressing for both parent and child. Nightmares can be triggered by many things. Kids at this tender age are being exposed to so many new experiences and images that it can be difficult to make sense of everything. Fears and anxieties can be dealt with by the subconscious in the form of bad dreams.
Some triggers are more obvious – a scary movie, a snappy dog in the park, an injury resulting from a nasty tumble, or perhaps observing a sibling or grown-up having a fear response to something like a spider. Most children can remember a few details from the nightmare, and may be able to recount them to you. Dismissing fears as not real is unhelpful – it is better instead to acknowledge their insecurity in respect of the dream and reassure them that they are safe.
Nightmares that are triggered by worry about something in real life are also common, although the details of the nightmare may bear no resemblance to the source of the problem. A fear of starting nursery for example may manifest as a monster in the cupboard, as easily as a nightmare about abandonment.
If nightmares recur, then they may be related to a traumatic experience that your child has experienced. In this situation it is important to discuss things with your GP. Counselling may help your child to work through the difficult emotions they are experiencing.
Night terrors differ from nightmares in their intensity and duration. A child experiencing a night terror may scream and thrash about, shouting and in a state of extreme panic. Their eyes may be open, and they may sit bolt-upright, or even jump out of bed. Although they may appear awake, they are not be fully conscious. Most common in child aged between three and eight, night terrors can last up to around 15 minutes. A family history of night terrors or sleepwalking make them more likely to occur in children.
- An increase in deep sleep due to extreme fatigue or tiredness, and the presence of a fever or the use of certain types of medication
- The general presence of emotions or circumstances that make it more likely your child will awaken from deep sleep – such as anxiety, excitement, or a sudden loud noise
Provided your child is safe, experts recommend no interaction or intervention during a night terror. Parents should instead remain present, but calm and quiet for the duration of the episode. This is not easy, but experience has shown that waking a child during a night terror can lead to their extreme agitation and fear – the child may not recognise you and reject any effort made to comfort them. Once an episode has finished, you may wish to gently wake your child to reassure them and you that everything is okay, perhaps encouraging them to use the toilet before returning to bed. Making sure they wake fully before returning to sleep has been shown to reduce instances of a recurring episode in the same night. The child often remembers nothing of the experience.
If the night terrors are occurring in a regular pattern each night, parents can try to break the cycle by anticipating an episode and actively waking the child before it occurs. If the frequency increases, and efforts to break the cycle do not succeed, then a chat with your GP may be in order. Disrupted sleep can have a physiological cause, such as large tonsils interfering with breathing patterns.
In the case of both nightmares and night terrors a gentle, calming bedtime routine can help. Avoid sugary drinks and snacks before bedtime, and keep exposure to TV, films and electronic gadgets to a minimum during this time. Neither of these upsetting experiences is thought to cause any long-term psychological damage to your child. It is the brain’s way of making sense of life, and we all need a little psychological outlet from time to time. Give your child lots of love and hugs, and in time these distressing events will hopefully pass.