Helping your child with nightmares or night terrors, part one

Nightmares and night terrors are not the same. In part one, learn how to help your child deal with nightmares.

Occasionally, you may find that your child’s sleep is disrupted by bad dreams. These dreams occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) portion of their sleep. This is the time when their body is at rest but their brain is active. During non-REM sleep, while their body may move around, their brain is less active. According to Michigan State University Extension, both types of sleep are essential for normal brain development.

Nightmares can sometimes occur after 6 months of age but are more typical around a child’s second birthday. By that time, your child’s brain has developed the ability to think in a more complex way, and their imagination and exposure to many experiences have grown. If your child thrashes around, calls out to you and seems fearful, they may be having a nightmare or a night terror. These sleep disturbances are not the same and should be dealt with in different ways.

If you child has nightmares, they will usually occur in the last half of the night. Your child may wake up genuinely afraid. They may sometimes be able to tell you about the dream, but not always. Sometimes they may be able to recall the dream but may not want to talk about it. Normal daytime stress and changes to their routine may trigger a nightmare. They may have more frequent nightmares if they go through significant changes or disturbances. Often, they may have trouble getting back to sleep and may need you to comfort them until they fall back asleep. They will typically calm down when you comfort and reassure them. You can also help your child by not making a big fuss about their nightmare. Other ideas include:

  • Provide structure and routines to their day
  • Talk to them about their dream during the day if they are willing to do so
  • Set up a night light
  • Leave the bedroom door open

Watch for part two of this article, which talks about dealing with night terrors.

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