Posted on: 13.07.2022.
Nightmares are frightening dreams that occur during the REM sleep phase, which is characterized by dreaming. A child who has a nightmare wakes up completely and is usually very anxious and upset, and may or may not remember the dreamed contents. Occasional nightmares are common in children aged three to six years, but if they are frequent, they can indicate the existence of some difficulties in the child, and in that case, it is important not to ignore them.
On the other hand, night terrors are episodes of incomplete wakefulness during which there is extreme anxiety, and the child usually does not remember the content of the episode. Night terrors, as well as sleepwalking, occur during incomplete awakening from the non-REM sleep phase that is present in the first 3 hours of sleep. Episodes of night terror usually last from a few seconds to a few minutes, and children are usually extremely anxious and panicky, and scream and cry. Night terrors usually occur in children from the age of three to eight, but can also occur in younger children. They represent a developmental phase and usually disappear as the sleep cycle matures.
What are the potential causes?
Nightmares can often be caused by a frightening experience, such as a child seeing something on the phone that scared him. However, they can also be a sign of the development of certain fears or anxieties in a child.
Night terrors usually occur when a child is very exhausted, tired or sick. They have been shown to occur more often in families whose members have had or have trouble sleeping.
Over time, having unpleasant sleep experiences, a child can learn to associate the night with fears they have experienced and demand a light on in the room, the presence of parents, etc.
What to do?
It is important that parents are calm and feel safe because the child can best be comforted by a calm and understanding parent.
When the initial anxiety about sleep subsides, try to explain to the child that what they saw was just a bad dream, and that it may seem real but cannot really hurt them.
Do not expose your child to anything that could cause nightmares an hour or two before bedtime – no disturbing movies, pictures, or stories.
Accept their fears and do not belittle them. You can tell the child, for example, "I can see that you're afraid to be alone in the dark, things look different and scarier in the dark, but I know that there is nothing dangerous here and that nothing bad will happen now."
Although smaller children cannot yet express themselves fully, encourage them to discuss their fears. Talking may not completely remove fear, but that is how a child learns what is extremely important – talking about unpleasant feelings.
Sometimes children will want to repeat the story of their fears over and over again and ask questions about them. Allow children to talk about fears often, because it is a natural way of dealing with fear and settling feelings.
It is also desirable to develop certain habits before going to bed, in order to allow the child to feel safe and relaxed. This can be reading their favourite story or sleeping with a favourite toy or blanket.
Night terrors are often related to the irregular rhythm of wakefulness and sleep, so it is important to pay attention to the hygiene of sleep – that the child goes to sleep at about the same time, that the bed is only for sleeping, that the room in which the child sleeps is of pleasant temperature, etc.
Try to find out if your child is under some kind of stress and is feeling anxious about something that is happening to them. This may give you an insight into the potential causes.
If nightmares or night terrors occur over an extended period of time and the child finds them difficult to cope with, consider seeking professional help.
Marica Marasović, MSc, Centre for Mental Health MBM