When your child is having nightmares

A nightmare is a scary dream.  Round about one out of every four children have a nightmare at least once a week.  Nightmares usually occur later in the sleep cycle.  You will probably wake up to your child’s calls for help between 4am and 6am. Children often have nightmares after physical or emotional events, when they are feverish or maybe just because he/she has a very active imagination.

What to do when your child had a nightmare?

  • Get to your child as soon as possible
  • Reassure your child that it was only a dream
  • Explain that many people have scary dreams occasionally
  • Ensure your child knows that you acknowledge his feelings of being scared as real
  • Give your child the opportunity to talk about the dream to you or someone else who he trusts
  • Let your child draw pictures about the dream
  • Let your child write a story about the dream with a happy ending
  • Explore together alternate happy endings to the dream
  • Ensure that your child gets enough sleep on a daily basis
  • Make sure that even though he was scared, he is still in control.

What not to do when your child had a nightmare?

  • Do not let your child watch scary shows on TV or read scary books
  • Do not ignore your child’s cries for help
  • Do not get angry because your sleep was interrupted
  • DO NOT allow your child to sleep in your bed after a nightmare. Your child will start believing your bed is safe and his is dangerous. Before you know you might have a regular visitor in your bed! Rather stay with him in his bed until he feels safe and secure.

Nightmares differ from night terrors in the following manner:

  • Children wake up screaming
  • Extreme fear and panic is visible
  • The child will be sweating and breathing fast
  • Although he seems awake, he is confused and inconsolable
  • Your child will not recognize you
  • Usually last from 5 to 30 minutes after which he will return to his normal sleep
  • There will be no recall of this dream
  • Unlike nightmares, most people outgrow night terrors.

The best way to deal with a night terror is to be with your child and try to comfort him where you can.  Ensure that he is safe and do not  leave him until he has returned to normal sleep.  Do not try to wake your child up even though it might be very traumatic for a parent to witness their child going through this.