It's a scene that rattles new parents and frustrates seasoned ones: your child screams from his bedroom in the middle of the night, startling you awake as you scramble to his room and find him sobbing and scared because of a nightmare. Nightmares can wreak havoc on a household's ability to get restful sleep, and can lead to the child resisting bedtime unless it's in Mom and Dad's bed with the lights on.
While we can't prevent nightmares from occurring altogether, we can take steps to better comfort our children after nightmares and to establish bedtime routines that experts believe reduce the frequency of nightmares.
A nightmare is a frightening dream involving an imagined danger that often causes children to wake up feeling afraid and needing comfort. Although children as young as toddlers can have nightmares, experts say that nightmares generally start between the ages of three and six years old, are common in children, and tend to decrease after the age of 10.
Nightmares typically occur after the child has been asleep for several hours and is in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. During the REM stage, the brain is especially active with processing vivid images and new information for learning and memory. When a child wakes up from a nightmare during the REM stage, the bad dream's alarming images are still fresh and can seem real to the child.
Nightmares are different from night terrors, which are more serious but less common. Unlike nightmares, night terrors occur during the first few hours of sleep and cause children to thrash about while still asleep. Night terrors also differ from nightmares in that it is difficult to awaken a child from a night terror and, once awake, the child exhibits little to no recollection of the episode that caused the terror.
The little research that has been done on children's nightmares has not uncovered the exact cause of nightmares. In fact, nightmares can occur despite having no discernible source. However, experts advise that certain factors may increase a child's risk of nightmares, notably:
Experts note that a nightmare's theme often reflects the child's developmental stage. For example, toddlers may have nightmares concerning separation-anxiety, young children may have nightmares stemming from their increasing responsibilities at home or at school, and older children's nightmares may replay scenes from a scary movie they just saw or suspenseful book they just read.
Experts encourage parents to do the following to soothe a frightened child after a nightmare:
We can't completely prevent nightmares. However, we can facilitate restful sleep which, in turn, may help decrease the incidence of nightmares. Specifically, experts suggest taking the following steps to create a bedtime atmosphere of comfort and security for children:
Set the scene for sweeter dreams by making your child's bedtime a tranquil experience. Your child will get a better night's sleep and, as a bonus, so will you.
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