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Nightmares

nightmare; dreams; sleepwalking; sleep; night terrors; night; terrors. ;

Many children’s sleep is disturbed by nightmares, night terrors or sleepwalking. While these can frighten children and worry parents children usually grow out of them in time.

Nightmares are bad dreams that can upset and frighten children. They can be about imaginary things such as monsters or something real in your child’s life. Young children can wake up thinking something bad has happened. As they get older they understand that dreams are not real.

Having nightmares and bad dreams can make children feel worried when it is time to go to sleep the next night.

Sleepwalking and night terrors seem to be due to a child or adult partially waking up. They tend to run in families. There is more about these in the topics:

Much of the information in this topic was developed by Parenting SA 

Parenting SA is a partnership between the Department for Education and Child Development and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network South Australia.
Parenting SA 

Contents 

Nightmares are bad dreams that can upset and frighten children. They can be about imaginary things such as monsters or something real in your child’s life. Young children can wake up thinking something bad has happened. As they get older they understand that dreams are not real.

Children may also have bad dreams that do not wake them, but which they remember in the morning. Having nightmares and bad dreams can make children feel worried when it is time to go to sleep the next night.

Nightmares can be linked with worries and fears. They happen more often after a traumatic event or when a child is stressed, unwell, taking medication or not getting enough sleep.

The pattern of nightmares

Almost all children have nightmares or bad dreams sometimes, and many need their parents to comfort them back to sleep. Adults may also have nightmares or bad dreams.

  • Nightmares happen during 'dreaming' sleep (also called REM sleep - REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement). Most dreaming sleep happens towards the end of the night, so usually children wake with nightmares in the second half of the night.
  • When a child wakes from a nightmare, he will want to be comforted, he will be aware that you are there, and will be able to tell you something about what has frightened him if he is old enough to be able to put it into words.
  • Children often take some time to go back to sleep after a nightmare because they are worried that the bad dream will come back.
  • Children who are having lots of nightmares may not want to go to bed at their normal bedtime because they are worried that they will have another bad dream.

Nightmares or night terrors?

  • Night terrors is the name for a different pattern of disturbed sleep.
  • Night terrors, or sleep terrors, do not happen during dreams and the child does not completely wake up.
  • Night terrors happen during the first half of the night, often about 1 to 2 hours after a child goes to sleep.
  • They can also occur during daytime sleeps.
  • The children are very distressed, and may cry loudly or even scream, but when their parents try to calm them down, the children do not seem to be aware that their parents are there.
    For more information see our topic Night terrors and other sleep disturbances.

What causes nightmares?

  • Nightmares may be linked with things that have happened during the day, especially things which are worrying, such as starting school, getting lost, being bullied, being barked at by a dog, having something happen to the family (such as illness or family fights) or something bad happening in the world (something seen on TV for example).
  • Dreams and nightmares seem to be ways for people to deal with their worries and work out ways of managing.
  • As children gain confidence in dealing with the problems of growing up, nightmares tend to become fewer, but something bad, like a burglary, can bring them back for a while.
  • Nightmares happen more often when children are unwell, especially if they have a fever. Some medicines can cause nightmares, while nightmares can sometimes start when other medicines are stopped.
  • Nightmares also tend to happen more often if children are not getting enough sleep.

What to do in the middle of the night

Mostly what children need from parents is comfort and calm reassurance that everything is all right and that mummy or daddy will keep them safe. They may come to you, or you may need to go to them and comfort them.

  • stay with them until they go back to sleep 
  • leave their bedroom door open or a night-light on 
  • try a gentle massage, cuddle, sing a song or play some gentle music 
  • talk with them calmly about the nightmare for a short time.

It can take quite a while for the child to go back to sleep because the nightmare has been so real and very frightening for her.

During the day

If nightmares are happening a lot, think about what is going on in your child's life. Nightmares and night worries often go along with daytime worries. Try to make what is happening less stressful if you can.

  • For example, if there are nightmares during toilet training, it might be worth going more gently or putting it off for a while.
  • Older children can be encouraged to talk about their worries and problems. Nightmares can be a sign that a child is being harassed or even abused, or that a child is very anxious or depressed.
  • Images on TV and video can disturb children's sleep. Carefully choose what programs your children watch. The TV news programs are especially frightening and children generally should not watch news and current affairs programs.

Talk with your child about the nightmares at a time when he is calm and feeling safe.

  • Ask if he can think of anything that might help him feel safer at night. Maybe a nightlight would help, or having a pet nearby, or sharing the room with a brother or sister. Encouraging your child to be involved in planning what would help him to feel safe is very important, as it involves him personally in doing something about his fears, and learning to take control rather than being helpless.

If your child is having a lot of nightmares, it may be useful for you (not your child) to make a record ('sleep diary') of what is happening during the day, and the number and time of bad dreams and nightmares, to see if there is a pattern that you can change.

Dreams help people deal with their worries. As children become more confident in dealing with problems, they tend to have fewer nightmares.

Going to bed

It can help to: 

  • reduce daytime stress e.g. if toilet training try putting it off for a while 
  • avoid TV, computers and video games before bed, especially any that could cause them to feel stressed or excited 
  • have a relaxing bedtime routine e.g. a bath, a quiet story, a song and a goodnight kiss 
  • try getting your child to relax and think of a happy, safe place while they go to sleep 
  • try using your child’s imagination. Ask them to draw what is scaring them and then screw it up and throw it away. This can give a sense of power over fears.

If your child often has the same nightmare with a scary ending, try talking during the day about a better ending.

Children who are having a lot of bad dreams are often very worried about going to bed, and may refuse to stay in bed by themselves. Evening routines are often helpful.

Using children's imagination

  • Some people say it is important that if children are afraid of 'monsters', that you do not pretend that there are monsters (eg. don't look under the bed or in the cupboard for them), because this tells children that you also believe in monsters.
  • Other people try to use the vivid imagination of young children to 'protect them from monsters', for example, by getting them to imagine something or someone taking care of them. Some people find that 'fairy dust' sprinkled around a room helps a child to laugh and feel happier at bedtime.
  • Some people have found that getting children to draw what is scaring them, then screwing up the paper and throwing it away helps give children a sense of power over what is scaring them.
  • A relaxation exercise, where you help your child to think of a beautiful, happy and safe place and imagine himself there, may help him drift off to sleep more easily. There are some books of children's meditation that might be useful for this.
  • You will need to be careful in what you decide to do, making sure it fits your child, and that you stop it if it is not working.

When to seek help

If nightmares are very disturbing, or if they keep happening for a month or two, and if the causes are difficult to work out, then it may help to get some professional advice. Nightmares can be a sign that a child is very anxious or depressed.

Resources

South Australia

Parent Helpline Phone 1300 364 100 For advice on child health and parenting

Child and Family Health Service (CaFHS) Phone 1300 733 606, 9am-4.30pm, Mon-Fri for an appointment.

Australia

Parenting SA For more Parent Easy Guides e.g. ‘Sleep (0–6years)’, ‘Bedwetting’, ‘Living with toddlers’ and ‘Dealing with a crisis’
www.parenting.sa.gov.au

Raising Children Network For parenting information
www.raisingchildren.net.au

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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