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What to do When Your Child Has a Nightmare?

by on 18/03/2013 4190

Remember the many sleepless nights when you had to literally slept 3-hour intervals so you could feed your new born baby? The bad news is that watching over your child and guarding for their wellbeing never really stops, even when they’ve graduated into sleeping independently in their very own cosy little bedroom.

Toddlers can become severely affected by nightmares even before they develop a vocabulary range that’s sufficient enough to explain his or her experiences to you, but it does not change the fact that your child requires your love and comfort, even if it is 5 in the morning and you have work to go to work in 3 hours. The last thing any parent would want is to be sleep-deprived and clueless about what to do with a sobbing child who is clearly terrified about going back to bed.

Behaviours to Look Out For

A distressed child is very vocal about being in pain, even if it is mentally self-inflicted. As dreams usually happen during the second half of the night, your toddler will probably complain about the event in the early hours just before dawn. Besides sudden crying or wailing, other symptoms of a bad dream could include unwillingness to part from a parent, shaking from terror and strong refusal to go back to bed. These symptoms could also mean that your child is either physically ill or uncomfortable as well, which is why it is important that you attend to a child who suddenly cries out in the middle of the night as fast as you can.

Are Nightmares and Night Terrors the Same Thing?

Simply put, a child having night terrors is still in a state of slumber, whereas a child recovering from a nightmare is fully awake. Night terrors usually affect children who are above the ages of 4 years old. When one is experiencing night terrors, he or she remain fast asleep but does not dream. At the same time, the sleeper also experiences severe agitation and may cry out in their sleep. In some cases, a child which is suddenly shaken awake during a night terror episode will not be able to recognise anyone. Other traits include heavy sweating and a racing heartbeat.

Oddly enough, most children do not recall having night terrors when they wake up the next morning. Night terrors do not affect every growing child, and is less common compared to nightmares, as night terrors usually occur when a child is uneasy or stressed, usually due to change of schools or moving home. This psychological problem also happens during the non-rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, approximately within two hours after the child is sound asleep. Night terrors usually occur in boys and only 5% of all children reportedly suffer from night terrors.

On the other hand, nightmares only occur when the sleeper is deep in the REM state of slumber. Children between the ages of two and three are most susceptible to nightmares because their minds are at the most imaginative, and they also struggle with the ability to differentiate between the real world and fantasy.

Did I Cause the Nightmare?

Toddlers are especially easy to mould and impress. Typical causes of nightmares in a toddler include violent or scary television programs, stories or watching something upsetting happen right before his or her eyes. A toddler who has just been separated from his or her parents may also be converting separation anxiety into a nightmare as well, even if said parents are only sleeping in the room next door. The good news is that while toddlers can stress themselves into repeatedly having nightmares, this phenomenon is usually self-made and is not caused by something the parents has said or done.

What to do During a Nightmare

Some parents prefer to let their children cry away protests during bedtime, especially when they refuse to go to bed or do not want to sleep in separate bedrooms. However, all parents are highly advised to console their children immediately, especially when they suddenly cry out in the middle of the night. If your toddler is too young to communicate with words, demonstrate your love with physical contact instead. Physical reassurances like hugging, kissing and cuddling is especially important for toddlers who have just been stressed out and is feeling sad. Once the toddler is calm, you can then rub his or her back down until they fall asleep again. Some parents prefer to invite toddlers into their bedroom for a sleepover as well. Although this could effectively help your toddler fall back into deep sleep, repeatedly doing so could create a bad habit that will be hard to reverse. Remember that like teenagers, toddlers also love pushing boundaries just to see how much they can get away with before they get into trouble.

A popular alternative is to find a replacement guardian for your toddler as well, especially in the form of a teddy bear! Let your toddler pick out his or her favourite soft toy and make it a habit to let them fall asleep with their plush buddy every night. The smell, softness and familiarity of the childhood object will be sure to calm most kids down. If your toddler’s nightmare was beast/monster-related, you might also want to make a great show of checking under the bed and in the cupboards for said vermin. The simple exercise of reminding your child that he or she is well-protected may be all they need to calm down and go back to bed.

Parents may also invest in a nightlight so your child will not feel completely alone and/or defenceless in a dark room. Another great idea is to keep their bedroom door open so they can hear the sounds of their parents bustling about the house as they fall back to sleep. Every child is different, so do some trial and errors until you find the perfect security blanket for your child. The idea is that you want to provide as much love and comfort as you can, yet also encourage independence at the same time.

If your child is old enough, you may also want to consider talking to them about their nightmare. However, do note that dwelling on the nightmare for too long can cause your toddler to relive the event again, thereby causing even more distress. If you really are curious about the nightmare plot, perhaps you could wait until the sun comes up for a more in-depth investigation.

At the same time, saying things like, “it’s just a dream” is also futile, as younger children won’t be able to tell the difference between fabricated dreams and actual reality. Instead, try other identifiable words such as, “It was just a TV/movie in your head,” or “It was just a story”.

Can I Just Let Them Stay Awake?

Most nightmares usually end near dawn, which is why it’s tempting for a tired parent to just let their kid run about the house until it’s time for breakfast. However, it’s always best to encourage your child to try to sleep some more as you don’t want to upset their sleeping schedule or deal with a lethargic child later on in the day.

The sad truth is that all children will eventually experience nightmare frights, and while it is heart breaking, there is nothing much you can do about it. If you would like to lessen the likelihood of nightmares, try telling your children happy stories only or relive precious memories like birthdays and Christmas with your child just before he or she falls asleep. When something frightens your child, all you really can do is provide comfort and wait until the terror passes.