Things that go bump in the night

Bad dreams can be a nightmare for parents.

Traditional Scottish Prayer:

From ghoulies and ghosties
and long-leggedy beasties
and things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

Nightmares are very common for many children between the ages 2 to 4. This is because their imagination is really developing, they are beginning to have normal fears and they have the ability to remember and describe their bad dreams when they are awake.

Just like adults, young children work out the stresses and anxieties of the day through dreams. It is your brain's way of making sense of all the information you took in during the day. Young children can experience many age appropriate changes that bring about stress, including moving out of a crib to a big bed, giving up pacifiers, potty-training, a change in caregivers, etc. Some things that don’t seem scary to us, or may not appear scary to the child at the time can trigger a nightmare; a book with a stressful theme, a trip to the zoo, a tractor mowing the lawn. It doesn’t help that young children still do not know the difference between fantasy and reality. A big stuffed giraffe can be pretty terrifying when it comes to life in their dreams.

A night terror is very different than a nightmare. A nightmare happens during the last third of the child’s sleep and a night terror happens during the first third of the night. During a nightmare a child is frightened and fully awake, and seeks the comfort of their parents. During a night terror they are fast asleep but very agitated and hard to console. A child can usually describe the bad dream with details, but often won’t be able to recall having night terrors. After a nightmare a child will be very reluctant to go back to bed, however after a night terror the child just goes back into a very deep sleep.

How you respond really depends on the age of your child. Younger children are comforted by hugs, cuddles and gentle, soothing talk. Reassure them with words, “It’s okay, it’s just a dream, it’s not real.” As children get older, their ability to reason through dreams becomes better. Help them to come up with their own solutions to the ending of dreams so they aren’t so frightening. This helps empower a child to begin to tap into their own inner strengths when facing fears in the waking world. Encourage them to talk about their fears and express them in other creative ways, like artwork, drama and writing.

Experts suggest a few simple things all parents can do to help prevent nightmares.

  • Have a regular bed time schedule.
  • Include soothing bed time calming routines: A bath, positive story, reassuring cuddling time.
  • Be sure their favorite blanket or stuffed animal is securely tucked in with them.
  • Leave a nightlight on and their door open.
  • Assure them that you are right down the hall if they need you.

Parents sometimes stay awake worrying long after the child has gone back to sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to adult stress during waking hours and can cascade into a pattern of less responsive caregiving, and more stressful night time routines. Sometimes just learning that nightmares are normal can be enough of a reassurance. However, if you have more concerns, bring them up with your child’s doctor. In addition there are some books that are written to help parents learn more about nightmares and how to help children.

  • Nightmare Help: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, by Anne Sayre Wiseman.
  • Dreamcatching: Every Parent’s Guide to Exploring and Understanding Children’s Dreams and Nightmares, by Alan Siegel and Kelly Buckeley.
  • National Sleep Foundation “Sleep Matters,” Sleep Problems in Children
  • Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Nightmares and Night Terrors

Nightmares can be a “wake-up” call to parents to assess things that might be causing stress to children during waking hours. Think about changes your child might be going through and help them to process stresses during the day. Encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings and give massive amounts of love and reassurance.

For more information on children and families please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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