Does your child wake up in the middle of the night crying out? Does he tell you there are monsters in the room? Your child may be experiencing nightmares, and in some cases night terrors.
Nightmares are characterized by frightening dreams that occur in the early morning hours during a child’s dream phase. This is known as rapid eye movement sleep (REM).
Nightmares most often occur in children three to six years old because this is when a child’s imagination is very active and normal fears start to develop. This is not to say that they don’t occasionally occur in older children and adults, they do.
Nightmares are usually brought on when a child experiences stress. Some stressful situations that may bring on nightmares could be the birth of a sibling, changing schools, moving or even the stress created when there are marital problems in the home.
Other stressors may include watching a scary movie or reading a scary book before going to bed, an injury, the death of a loved one, including pets, bullying and sexual or verbal abuse.
They can also occur if your child has a fever or is just not feeling well. Since some medicines may cause nightmares, if your child starts having more of them after they have just started a new medicine, let your pediatrician know.
Because nightmares often involve disturbing images, themes, or figures such as ghosts, monsters, scary animals or bad people, the intense fear this ultimately creates will cause your child to wake up.
No matter how upset your child may be, it is important for you to remember that there is no physical danger.
When your child is having a nightmare you might observe some of the following behaviors. Your child will wake up during the last cycle of their sleep, usually in the morning. Because your child is frightened, they will wake up and may be only partially awake.
Because nightmares occur during their REM sleep your child will be able to tell you the scary dream in detail. Finally, your child will want to be comforted and reassured.
Speak in a soft voice, hold and hug them, and remind them that they are not in danger and that their scary dream is not real. Sometimes rubbing their back until they fall back to sleep will help.
If your child experiences an increase in nightmares, this is an indication that they are under increased stress.
There are things you can do to help ward off nightmares. Besides the usual methods which include getting into a good sleep routine, sleeping with a stuffed animal, keeping the child’s door open on a crack, using a night light, or maybe sleeping with a favorite blanket, there are other creative ways that might be more helpful.
If your child is already engaging in imaginary play, they will be able to come up with some of their own creative ways to ward off the nightmares. If they are not able to come up with their own here are some ideas.
One way that your child may find helpful is to make a dream catcher. Other things you might try are making a magic “monster spray” that, when likely sprinkled around the bed, will ward the monsters off.
To do this get a clean spray bottle and fill with tap water. Add a couple of drops of whatever color of food color your child likes. At bedtime let them, or you can do it if they are too young spray the monster spray around the room to keep the monsters at bay.
Another thing you can do is have your child re-imagine the end of their nightmare so it ends in a nice way. Or, let your child make a sign to place on their bedroom door that states “No Monsters Allowed.”
Remember, if your child is able to come up with their own creative way to keep the nightmares away, that will usually be the most successful. By showing the child how to help the nightmares go away themselves you have taught them an important skill.
You have taught them how to size up a problem and approach it and then come up with a solution. This will serve them well when they start to face larger and more serious situations in their lives.