Helping a Child with Nightmares and Night Terrors

Is your child having frequent nightmares? It may have more to do with where your child is at developmentally than anything else.

Sleep researchers have discovered that children dream far more than adults. For example, studies indicate that a child under a year dreams for about five and a half hours a night, while a twenty year old adult will dream for only one and a half hours. Unfortunately dreams sometimes turn into nightmares, especially common among preschool and preteen children. Sleep specialist with the Hospital for Sick Children, Dr. Shelly Weiss explains that the reason children suffer from nightmares most at these ages is because this is “when there are more conflicts in a child’s life. In the young child these may be around separation and starting school, and in the older child they may be around preteen issues. So during those periods, the infrequent nightmare isn’t a concern.”

Children are often frightened by their nightmares and may require a little extra assurance when they wake from one. But not so for night terrors. Dr. Weiss says children don’t even remember having them. “A night terror usually occurs in a preschool child. It’s a partial awakening so the child is half awake, half asleep. When you see the child it may be quite scary because your child may have a glazed look, be thrashing and screaming, yet in the morning will have no memory of that event.”

As alarming as night terrors are for the parent observing them, they are in fact completely harmless. Dr. Jonathan Flemming of the UBC Hospital’s Sleep Clinic explains that “a night terror is a physiological state of hyper-arousal and what happens in that state is people have rapid heartbeat, are panting and breathing much more rapidly than usual, and they appear terrified.”

So what should you do if your child has a night terror? Dr. Flemming says the best course is to do nothing. “For the night terror you just want to let it take it’s course, provide safety, and make sure the child doesn’t harm himself in any way. But you don’t want to interact at all because the child won’t have any understanding of who or what is around. And because full consciousness has not been reached they may interpret a helpful action as a harmful one and may strike out or hurt themselves in the process. So you just observe it as calmly as you can because it is a bit upsetting to look at. Realize that it’s self-limiting, and the child will revert back to sleep and have actually no recall of it in the morning.”


Adapted from The Parent Report Radio Show. Any advice or information contained herein should never be a substitute for professional and/or medical advice, diagnosis and treatment. For more information please review Terms of Service.

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