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What to Do About a Child’s Nightmares and Night Terrors

Everyone, no matter how old, has nightmares from time to time. Some adults remember their dreams more clearly than others, but we all have at least a few memories of nights and mornings when we woke in sheer terror, then felt that sense of relief that comes from the realization that it was all just a nightmare. Dreams are a strange phenomenon that science has yet to fully explain, but nightmares are something we have all experienced and thus can identify with on a personal level.

But for young children, there is a special acuteness to the terror that comes with nightmares. As adults, though we may not fully understand why nightmares happen, we are very aware of them and have had plenty of experience dealing with them. Young children do not have that bedrock of experience to help them cope emotionally with an especially difficult nightmare. So when they wake up seized with terror over what they have been experiencing in their sleep, it is often difficult to dismiss the feelings and move on as adults do.

For many parents, dealing with children’s nightmares and night terrors is a unique challenge. On one hand, we know that the terrors result from dreams and have little or no bearing on the real world, so the temptation may be to dismiss the child’s terror as silly and fleeting. But on the other hand, the feelings are very real in the moment, and every parent hates to see his or her child in the throes of such terror.

Nightmares and night terrors

Though nightmares and night terrors are closely associated, we can draw a distinction between them. Nightmares are those bad dreams that we all have experienced at one time or another. In your sleep, you are faced with a very disturbing situation that causes you to feel feelings that we hope never to experience in real life, but then you wake up, realize that it was all in your mind, and move on.

Night terrors in children are different from nightmares in some crucial ways. The science on these matters is still in development, but it is believed that nightmares occur during deep sleep, while night terrors occur during periods of transition from one stage of sleep to another, often during the early stages of sleep. So it is common for children to experience them soon after being put down to bed at night.

The good news about night terrors is that children often do not remember them later. Severe terrors can cause the child to wake up, but in many cases, the spell consists of strange behavior such as sitting up, screaming, and thrashing around. These are obviously upsetting to the parents, and they can be dangerous if the child is not in a safe place. But more importantly, they can serve as a sign that the child is under stress, is not getting enough sleep, or is ill at ease with the sleeping conditions.
Dealing with nightmares and night terrors
One positive thing about nightmares is that, while the initial feelings may sting, they do pass, and their memory often begins to fade within minutes. So in this situation, the parents’ job is to simply be there to provide comfort and to remind the child that the real world is a safe, loving place. And if your child is old enough, it is also a good idea to talk about the nightmare. Often this helps the child grasp that the whole thing was made up in the mind. With your comforting presence, the child should soon be ready to go back to sleep.

The best way to deal with night terrors is simply to understand what its happening and to know that it is a common occurrence among young children. The spells usually pass after a few minutes, and there is a good chance that your child will not even wake up from it. So instead of picking your child up to comfort her, just keep an eye on the situation and wait for her to calm herself down in her sleep. If this does not happen after a few minutes or she wakes herself up, that is when you can use your comforting presence to help calm her down.

Both nightmares and night terrors can be a sign that the child is under stress, so if they happen often, take a look at what factors might be causing the stress. If your household has recently undergone a change, then that is likely the explanation. If you feel that the problem is serious and you do not know what to do about it, do not be afraid to call your doctor. Though these sleep issues may not be serious in an of themselves, they could be symptoms of something more serious.

By Marc Courtiol

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