What are Nightmares?
Nightmares are scary dreams that awaken children and often make them afraid to go back to sleep. They usually occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) period which happens during the last third of sleep and so are most common in the very early hours of the morning. Although adults also experience nightmares, because young children are learning new information and absorbing new experiences at an exceptionally rapid rate, they are more prone to bad dreams and waking up during the night.
From about the age of 6 months, it is normal for children to have the occasional bad dream. For example a toddler going to kindergarten for the first time may have nightmares about being separated from his or her parents. The older child may have nightmares about real dangers or even death.
Children waking from a bad dream are usually fully conscious and aware of their surroundings, although they may be a little confused and obviously upset. This can be very distressing for both parent and child and the interrupted and disturbed sleep that can result often leaves everyone feeling groggy the next day.
(For more info on adult nightmares, see Section 6 below)
What is the difference between night terrors and nightmares?
Nightmares (especially very traumatic ones) are sometimes confused with night terrors. While they are in fact very similar, they do have distinct differences. Nightmares occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep (also known as dream sleep) which is more common towards the later part of the night or early hours of the morning.
This differs from night terrors which occur during slow wave sleep or deep sleep. This deep sleep state tends to take place about 90 minutes into sleep and so night terrors generally occur in the early hours of the night. Another difference is that a child having a nightmare will often wake up and have a memory of the bad dream.
Children waking from a nightmare may be able to tell you vivid details of what had scared them and may even be too scared to go back to sleep or go to bed the following night. On the other hand, a child having a night terror is generally only aware of the panic and feelings of fear and very little else.
The fear is usually not accompanied by a feared situation or object (as in a nightmare) because it occurs during a dream-less state, and once the child goes back to sleep, he or she often doesn’t remember anything the next morning. Thrashing movements and screaming are fairly common during a night terror, while markedly uncommon during a nightmare.
When should I worry about my child’s nightmares?
Nightmares are a normal part of childhood and if they are infrequent or occur during understandably distressing life events they are generally not something to be concerned about. Most children grow out of their nightmares; however, if any of the following apply to your child you may consider consulting your health care practitioner or psychologist:
- If the nightmares seem to be getting worse or happening more often;
- If night time fears start to interfere with daytime activities and regularly disrupt sleep patterns
- If the nightmares persist 6 months after a traumatic experience and occur with other post-traumatic stress symptoms
- If your child seems increasingly anxious at all times
- If your child shows any signs of jerking, stiffening or drooling. This may indicate a seizure rather than a nightmare
- If you feel that excessive family stress may be a factor
- If you have any other fears, questions or concerns about your child’s nightmares
What causes Nightmares?
There are a number of reasons why children have nightmares. Mostly, they are a normal part of growing up and they reflect the difficulties, problems and fears that most children struggle with. In most kids, nightmares are a result of developing new fears such as of spiders or monsters, starting a new school or daycare, trying to conceptualize a new life problem or experience. Other causes include:
- Physical conditions such as illness or fever
- Unresolved psychological conflicts such as chaotic home environment, overheard arguments, anxiety, some form of loss or grief
- A traumatic experience or stressful life events
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Violence on television
- Side effects of certain medications such as antihistamines, decongestants, beta blockers, and antidepressants, as well as withdrawal from addictive drugs.
Help for Nightmares
Most children grow out of their nightmares or learn to deal with them better as they get older. As children begin to understand that no harm actually comes from a nightmare they recognize that dreams both good and bad are products of their own minds. Nightmares then become less distressing for both the child and the parents. Treatment options may include:
Drug treatments: Drug treatments are seldom necessary and generally not a suitable treatment option for children. If sleep patterns are severely disrupted, a doctor may prescribe sleeping tablets however; these can be highly addictive and may cause other side-effects or withdrawal symptoms.
Note: It is strongly advised that you thoroughly research any prescription medication and its side-effects before deciding on what would be the best option for your child. For more information on these drugs see www.rx.com
Psychotherapy: In more serious cases, or situations where nightmares follow a traumatic or stressful experience, some form of psychotherapy may be necessary. Child therapy or counseling can help a child deal with unresolved anxieties and stressful events. Play therapy or art therapy is especially useful when dealing with young children who lack the ability to appropriately communicate their thoughts and emotions.
Re-scripting: This is a simple yet effective technique that parents can do with their children to help combat bad dreams. By simply discussing the dream and letting the child come up with different and happy endings, the child will soon learn that they have the power in their dreams. Some suggestions are humorous endings, empowering endings or endings where love wins out in the end. Alternatively, get the child to draw a picture of the nightmare the following day and ceremoniously shred the piece of paper.
Gentle soothing and affectionate reassurance; anxiety-reducing techniques such as deep breathing; as well as natural calming herbal or homeopathic remedies that encourage sleep and reduce fear are also effective in dealing with nightmares.
Nightmares can be very disruptive for both children and their parents, especially when little ones are difficult to console and parents are tired. Natural herbal and homeopathic remedies are a gentle, yet effective way to help settle your child after a nightmare, while also helping to restore healthy sleep patterns in the child who suffers from frequent night time disturbances. A number of natural ingredients are traditionally used to provide comfort and to settle your little one in times of fear and anxiety.
In therapeutic potencies, certain homeopathic ingredients such as Aconite, Kali phos and Nat. sulph can be very helpful, while herbal remedies such as Passiflora Incarnata and Chamomile are safe for children, have a calming and relaxing effect and are especially useful in cases of sudden fright and nervous restlessness. To ensure maximum safety and effectiveness, remember always to source your natural remedies from a reputable company who offers support and advice especially in the case of children.
Tips for coping with your child’s Nightmares
- Get your child into a healthy bedtime routine. A quiet unwinding time that lets your child slowly calm down, both physically and mentally, is often essential for a good night’s sleep. Reduce stimulation by dimming the lights and talking in hushed tones. This time is also perfect for a bed-time story (not a scary one!) or casual conversation about the day just passed. These bed-time rituals will become comforting to your child and often provide a sense of security.
- Monitor TV watching. Ensure that your child is not watching violent or scary TV programs as this is a well known cause of nightmares. Although your child may enjoy watching these programs, they may be causing undue anxiety. Even some cartoons screened for kids are filled with violence and scary monsters that may affect a sensitive child. Also monitor TV and computer games.
- Keep your child active during the day. A child that is energetic and kept active during the day will fall asleep faster and enjoy a deeper sleep with fewer night-time interruptions.
- Avoid high sugar intake or other stimulants. Even though pudding before bed may be a household habit, keeping sugar intake low especially before bed will help reduce nightmares. Also watch out for chocolate as it contains caffeine and acts as a mental stimulant.
- Leave your child’s door open or leave a night light on. Even if your child has stopped sleeping with the light on, a small night light left on can be reassuring on waking up from a nightmare and able to recognize where he or she is. If they can’t sleep with a light on, then leave their door open and keep a corridor light on to reassure them that the rest of the family are near by.
- Introduce a comfort item. This could be a favorite soft toy or a comforting blanket that will make your child feel safe and secure. You can also be imaginative here and introduce a make-believe fairy that chases bad dreams away. Sometimes just knowing that they are safe and protected goes a long way to reduce nightmare induced anxiety.
- Provide sympathetic reassurance. Hugs, verbal reassurance that it was just a dream and an attentive listening ear go a long way in comforting a distressed child after a nightmare. Sit with your child until calm, and encourage going back to sleep in his or her own bed.
- Don’t spend too long searching for the ‘monster’. If your child is convinced there’s a monster under the bed, a quick look and reassurance is sufficient. Too much searching will make it seem that monsters really do exist!
- Rewrite the bad dream with your child. Encourage your child to talk about the bad dream and together, come up with happier alternate endings. Let them know that they have the power to change a scary dream into a happy dream – they hold the script!
- Resolve underlying issues. The following day, ask your child to talk about the dream, draw a picture of what happened or act it out. Look for clues about any issues that may have brought the nightmares about. Sometimes children’s nightmares are quite literal and can be traced back to a scary experience or a fear that needs to be resolved. Have a conversation about these underlying issues and resolve any conflict or uncertainties that they have on the subject.
More information on Nightmares
While distressing nightmares are more commonly associated with children, adults can experience them too. Many adults have nightmares that leave them feeling anxious and disturbed upon waking and can even leave the individual feeling drained and tired after a full night’s rest. As with children, many nightmares in adults are caused by life stressors and anxieties that reflect in the sub-conscious mind during sleep.
In many cases, recording and examining your nightmares can provide great opportunities for self-exploration and reflection. Unresolved issues surface in our dreams and sometimes these issues need to be addressed. For many people, keeping a dream journal can be quite a therapeutic process that can allow for much positive change. Other common causes of nightmares in adults include:
- Alcohol or drug use
- Adverse reaction to prescription medication including some heart medication, antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin, antihistamines, appetite suppressants such as fenfluramine, antidepressants, and ulcer drugs such as cimetidine.
- Nicotine patches left on over night
- Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, cigarettes or certain medications, especially sleeping pills
- Negative emotions such as grief, guilt, anxiety and depression
- Physical conditions such as illness or fever
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea