No matter how wonderful the day was or how sweet the bedtime stories are, kids are bound to have nightmares. Their active imaginations can spawn infinite odd and eerie situations when they sleep. Plus, the world is a lot scarier to little ones who are facing the unknown and learning new things every day. About two percent of children will also experience night terrors (which sound scary, but are actually harmless for your child). It’s awful to see your little baby crying and upset, so prepare yourself to address both situations with these 20 tips for dealing with nightmares and night terrors.
First of all, what’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Nightmares are scary dreams that often happen during the second half of the night when dreaming is most intense. Children may wake up crying or feeling afraid and may have trouble falling back to sleep.
Night terrors occur most often in toddlers and preschoolers and take place during the deepest stages of sleep. Deepest sleep is usually early in the night, often before parents’ bedtime. During a night terror, your child might:
- Cry uncontrollably
- Sweat, shake, or breathe fast
- Have a terrified, confused, or glassy-eyed look
- Thrash around, scream, kick, or stare
- Not recognize you or realize you are there
- Try to push you away, especially if you try to hold him
While night terrors can last as long as 45 minutes, most are much shorter. Most children fall right back to sleep after a night terror because they actually have not been awake. Unlike a nightmare, a child will not remember a night terror.
What are the best ways to deal with nightmares? Here are 10 expert tips:
- The Baby Sleep Site says: Don’t add to your child’s fear by overreacting. If your child wakes crying and afraid in the middle of the night, it’s perfectly understandable for you, the parent, to feel anxious and upset as well. However, remember that your toddler or preschooler takes many of her cues from you. So if you seem agitated, it’ll only make your child more upset. If you’re able to remain calm and fairly neutral, however, it’ll go a long way towards helping your child feel reassured and relaxed.
- The Sleep Foundation recommends a security object. Help your child become attached to a security object that he can keep in bed with him. This can help your child feel more relaxed at bedtime and throughout the night. (Cloud b’s plush pals are perfect for this. With a little squeeze, a calming light and soothing sounds begin to ease your wee one back to sleep.)
- The Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital says: Leave the bedroom door open (never close the door on a fearful child).
- BabyCenter recommends: Let her tell you about the nightmare if she wants to, but don’t press it. At this age she understands the difference between reality and fantasy, so you can console her by reminding her it was “only a dream.” But be patient if she’s still upset — we all know the emotions conjured up by a nightmare are very real.
- Dr. Greene says: If your child is old enough to tell or draw the story of the dream, it can be helpful to find a way for the story to reach a happy ending. Addressing the underlying emotions can help your child make sense of them.
- Meri Wallace, LCSW says: It is best not to change your child’s sleep patterns, for instance having your child sleep in your bed or lying next to him all night. The nightmares will cease on their own as you support him and these patterns will be difficult to undo.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics says: Use mood lighting. A nightlight or a hall light can help kids feel safe in a darkened room as they get ready to go back to sleep. A bedside flashlight can be a good nightmare-chaser.
- Clinical psychologist Kirrilie Smout says: Teach them how to physically calm themselves. Show them how to breathe slowly and deeply, and relax their muscles.
- Child development Specialist Laura Olson, Ph.D., says: If he has frequent nightmares, mention them to your pediatrician and jot down what he does (and even eats) during the day. You might be able to identify the common denominator.
- Kimberly Blaine, The Go To Mom, recommends a Dream Box:
What should you do if your child has night terrors? Here’s more detail about what they are and 9 tips from expert Kim West, The Sleep Lady:
When a child is experiencing a night terror she may scream and appear anxious. There may also be sweating and/or a racing heart beat. The child is often inconsolable. The terror usually lasts between five and fifteen minutes and then subsides. These incidents are often more upsetting for the parent than they are for the child, as children do not usually remember them. Night terrors occur during NON-REM sleep (the period of coming out of deep sleep), and usually within two hours of going to sleep. Night terrors are not bad dreams. They do NOT occur during dream sleep. They are not a sign of a psychological problem. Night terrors can also occur during a developmental milestone.
Your child is more likely to have night terrors if either parent had them as a child, or if either parent had a partial arousal sleep disorder such as sleepwalking. There are other causes for night terrors, too. The most common cause is sleep deprivation or a disturbance in a child’s sleep patterns. Stress that causes big changes in their sleep schedule (like traveling to a different time zone, sleep apnea, or fever) can also be contributing factors.
What you can do:
If your child is having a night terror, monitor the child but avoid interfering, as this can worsen the episode.
Make sure your child is physically safe during the night terror.
Put your child to bed earlier – even if by only 30 minutes.
Keep a regular sleep schedule for him.
Don’t talk about the terror with your child in the morning.
If your child is having night terrors two to three times a week at set times during the night (i.e. 2 hours after going to sleep) do the following:
Keep a sleep log.
Plan on the episodes taking at least 7-10 days to diminish.
Wake your child 15 minutes prior to the time he usually has an episode to the point where he mumbles, moves, or rolls over.
Do this every night for 7-10 nights in a row.
We said there’d be 20 tips, so what’s the last one? Trust your instincts. Every child is different and you know your child best. If your gut says you should go against one of the aforementioned tips or do something different altogether, run with it.