After a long day, parents want to settle into bed for a restful sleep—a whole night of uninterrupted bliss. But once their kids are past the infant stage and can sleep through the night, a new developmental milestone hits that wakes them up.
Not to be confused with night terrors, a less common sleep disorder characterized by outbursts early in the sleep cycle that children rarely remember in the morning, nightmares are simply dreams. Everyone experiences dreaming each night, even if the dreams are not remembered. It is a normal part of sleep.
"Nightmares occur when dreams take a bad cast," says Dr. Karen Gouze, director of training in psychology at Children’s Memorial Hospital. "We all have dreams and nightmares."
Molly Ghahtani, a mom of two girls in Bolingbrook, feels bad when her daughters wake up at night with nightmares. "It seems like a couple times a week one of my girls will have a bad dream," Ghahtani says. "They come in our bedroom and wake me up."
Nightmares don’t have to interfere with your child’s sleep or yours. Coping strategies for dealing with a middle-of-the-night bad dream and preemptive routines can give all of you a more peaceful night’s sleep.
What causes nightmares
During a normal sleep cycle called REM—rapid eye movement—people experience dreams. If you look at a sleeping child in REM, his eyelids will be closed but you can see the eyes moving underneath them. Nightmares can occur during any of the REM phases, which explains why some children will wake up repeatedly throughout the night.
Scientists continue to debate why people have such vivid dreams that can vary from euphoric to petrifying. But by listening to the details of your child’s dream, you might figure out what’s bothering him.
"In the preschool years children may have dreams about monsters or fantastical creatures," says Gouze, also associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. "Older children will have nightmares related to real life dangers, such as something they may have seen on the news. Much of it is developmental."
Watching a new movie with scary elements or feeling stress at school can bleed into a child’s thoughts and, therefore, his dreams. With younger children, separation anxiety may cause nightmares. Illness, particularly with a high fever, can also cause children to experience a bad dream.
Dealing with nightmares
"Generally when kids have nightmares, they are pretty terrified," says Gouze. "They may come looking for mom or dad right away. But the best thing to do is get your child back to bed while being reassuring."
For parents who do not co-sleep, convincing a child who just woke up with a bad dream to go back to his room is difficult. Since nightmares are a common occurrence, however, children need to learn coping strategies, just like they would with any other problem.
If your child comes in your room, ask what’s wrong and then walk him back to bed. The longer he’s awake, the longer it will take him to calm down and get back to sleep. Be reassuring without giving in to his irrational fears.
What makes your kids feel safe and loved? A favorite stuffed animal, thinking good thoughts, prayers and even pretend monster spray can go a long way. Pay close attention to what calms your child and together you’ll find a way to get him back to bed.
"With my youngest, I make her feel comfortable and safe," says Ghahtani. "I sing her a lullaby, rearrange her blankets and put stuffed animals around her."
If your child is resisting, it’s up to you how long you want to fight about him returning to his own bed. More than one night spent in bed with the parents may turn into a plea for co-sleeping during future nights. It’s a battle similar to encouraging babies to sleep through the night and every parent must set his or her own limits for what is acceptable.
Combating nightmares shouldn’t be reserved for the middle of the night. There is plenty parents can do during the day to encourage a more restful night’s sleep.
If your child had a bad dream last night, talk about it in the morning. Ask what was frightening about it and have a genuine discussion. If he has concerns, don’t push them away. Instead sit down together and talk about his fears. If he is able to work through his worry, his nightmares may subside. Ignoring him won’t do anything but encourage anxiety.
Gouze suggests asking children if they would feel better with a dream catcher, a Native American charm that hangs above the bed and catches children’s nightmares. Or she suggests creating a worry box where children can write down their fears before bed and put them in the box, which might help free their thoughts from concerns.
Ghahtani puts herself in her daughters’ shoes. "If I get mad, I know it will exacerbate the situation, so I try to think about their feelings first." She also knows that if her kids stay up past their bedtimes, they are prone to have restless sleep and more nightmares.
Keeping a bedtime routine in place, even as kids age, will still relax them just as it did when they were babies. Allowing him to read a book before bed or listen to some calming music on his iPod might be enough to relax him and let the anxiety of the day dissolve.
The goal is to have your kids learn how to get themselves back to sleep after a nightmare, and knowing they are safe and loved will guide them to greater independence and security.
Michelle Sussman is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook. Visit her on the Web at www.michellesussman.com.