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Kids’ Nightmares and Night Terrors

Debora V
Senior Editor, TipsHire

Why they happen and what to do

It happened to all of us to wake up in the middle of the sleep, frightened that we were kidnapped by an alien, our teeth fell out or we just fell down from the tallest building. Nightmares are extremely common, we have them at least once a year and scare the hell out of us, even though not all our nightmares are scary. Unfortunately, not only adults are victims of bad dreams, because it can affect children, as well and they may even be more affected than us.

About nightmares

Nightmares are bad dreams that contain unpleasant and uncomfortable situations, which produces fear, anxiety or panic. After perceiving the danger, the dreamer may wake up and start to feel really scared, although in some situations they will not remember anything they dreamed about. They occur during REM, which is rapid eye movement sleep and happens in the latter part of the night. First, we need to understand that all adults and children, as well, cycle two stages of sleep – deep sleep that is also known as non-rapid eye movement and light sleep, which is known as REM.

After we fall asleep, we go into deep sleeping, stage in which we stay for the first hours of the night. After that we cycle between deep and light sleep and these cycle have a duration of 30-60 minutes in children and about 90 minutes in adults. When light sleep appears, we can wake up for a few seconds, look around the bedroom and go to sleep again.

REM is a period of intense brain activity, in which blood flow decreases to the brain and increases to the muscles and other parts of the body and supports their recovery. Therefore, it has a positive influence over the growth and stress hormone, as well as the immune system and the functioning of the cardiovascular system. Since all these good things happen while we are wake during a nightmare, makes the appearance of bad dreams not all that bad.

If 50% to 70% of all adults experience nightmares sometimes, with a high frequency in women than in men, the most affected are children, being more common for them to have bad dreams. As shows a study of dreams in four to twelve years old children, published in the Journal of Child Psychology in 2000, nightmares are common during childhood. Therefore, researchers found that the most affected are children starting from seven to nine years old, as 95.7 percent of children in this age range had bad dreams. Also, 76.3 percent of ten to twelve year olds had a nightmare experience, while only 67.7 percent of four to six year olds experienced them.

Nightmares’ causes

There are different factors that lead to nightmares, such as stressful things children have to deal with on a daily basis. The appearance of nightmares could be an effective way to eliminate the pressure accumulated during the day, due to the problems children face at home or at school. It is important to understand that bad dreams in childhood are normal for a proper developing of our brain. There are different stressful events that lead to nightmare, such as changing the school or the neighborhood where they live in, having problems with a schoolyard bully, watching a horror movie, playing a violent video game or the birth of a sibling.

Different traumatic events, such as parental divorce or separation, the death of a parent or other loved one, an illness or an injury or being a victim or a witness to physical and verbal violence may increase the intensity of the nightmares. In some cases, nightmares in children are caused by the use of certain medication recommended for treating allergies, asthma and seizures.

Nightmares’ symptoms

In a normal nightmare episode the child awakens during the latter part of the sleep, begins to frighten, is completely alert and can describe the bad dream. As you will notice, the child needs comfort and is receptive to affection and reassurance, so they will be more than happy to receive a huge hug. Most children refuse to go to sleep because they are afraid the nightmare will repeat again.

If the intensity and frequency of your child’s nightmare is normal, than you have no reason to worry, but if you notice changes in their duration or intensity, it is best to consult a physician. A specialist can determine if the bad dreams are connected to an injury, an illness, an infection or the use, as well as change in medications. It is important to determine if the sleep changes are linked to a certain health problems, because illnesses such as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and autism can lead to nightmares in children.

Fortunately, nightmares reduce in frequency and intensity over time and when reappear, it may suggest that the child is having a hard time resolving a certain difficulty. Observing the child’s sleeping patterns allows you to early notice any possible changes, making easier to prevent and treat sleeping disorders.

What are night terrors?

If some children are having bad dreams, others are victims of night terrors, which seem to be more frightening for adults than for the little ones. Night terrors are sleep disturbances which seems similar to nightmares, but are more dramatic. The child who go through an episode of night terror (or sleep terror) will suddenly sit upright in bed, begin to scream, breathe faster and have a quicker heartbeat, sweat and sometimes they run around. Also, they might have their eyes shut or open and look extremely frightened. Because they aren’t completely awake, they won’t remember anything about the episode in the morning.

Usually, night terrors happen before midnight and take place when the child is somehow blocked between the two sleep stages, namely between a deep and a light sleep. During a night terror episode, the body is awake, while the mind isn’t.

Night terror’s causes

If your child has night terrors, it doesn’t mean that you have done something wrong to cause them. Unfortunately, some children are born prone to this sleep disturbance and specialists don’t know exactly what cause it. What matters is that on their own, night terrors don’t suggest that a child is having a psychological problem. However, there are certain risk factors, such as the child’s fever or if they don’t get enough sleep or different sleep problems, like getting up in the middle of the night and an irregular sleep program. Solving these sleep problems increases the chances of eliminating night terrors.

Children born in families with a history of night terrors or sleepwalking are more likely to develop the problem, but in other cases the use of certain medication or sleep apnea contribute to their appearance. As research suggests, medical problems that interfere with your child sleep and lead to insufficient rest, causing restless legs syndrome or gastroesophageal reflux disease, can also trigger night terrors. Other triggers can be stress and over-tiredness. Making sure that your child has enough sleep is an important step in preventing future episodes of sleep terrors.

Night terrors’ symptoms

When an episode of night terror begins, the child will be yelling and screaming after being deep asleep. You can find them bolt upright in the bed, moving around the bed, experiencing a seizure or being agitated, with a rapid heartbeat and a fast pulse. Other possible symptoms include confusion if awoken, difficulty to wake up, impossible to calm during the episode, getting out of bad and walking just as if sleepwalking, existing the risk to hurt themselves and, of course, waking up in the morning, without remembering anything about their experience.

If your child is having something similar to panic attacks or seizures while asleep and experience sleep walk and bad wetting, than it is more likely that is having sleep terrors.

Nevertheless, when we spoke about this type of sleep disturbance, it is important to mention the parents’ symptoms, too, because it is not easy a scene easy to take for the parents, when their children go through such an episode. While children won’t remember the night terrors and seem to be fine the next day, parents are afraid that something is wrong with them.

Parents in these situations are tired, irritated, cranky and scared that their children are having some serious problems, thinking about the worse. It is natural to feel exhausted and extremely worried, but it is a situation that can be treated, without affecting your child’s life.

The difference between nightmares and night terrors

Knowing the difference between nightmares and night terrors helps you understand exactly what to do, when your child is having one of these sleep problems. Night terrors appear in the first few hours of the night, during non-REM sleep, while they have nightmares in the second part of the sleep, often between 2am to 6am, during REM sleep.

An easy way to tell if your child is having a nightmare or a night terror is to ask yourself who is more upset in the morning. If your child seems to be fine the next day, (even though during the night you saw them scream, walk around the bed and being extremely agitated) while you are terrified, exhausted and very concerned, it means that what your child had experienced is night terror.

What to do for nightmares

If your child is having a bad dream, it helps to remember fun events and engage the little one in fun activities before going to bed. Try to read funny stories and make them fall asleep with a large smile on their face. Offering comfort and reassurance is the best thing you can do, as there is no specific medical treatment recommended it.

If they appear frequently, eliminate daytime routine that may be a trigger, such as video games, television. It also helps to establish good sleeping patterns, making sure that bedtime routine starts at the same time every evening. Using a nightlight is good for reducing anxiety. If the problem persists and shows other worrying signs, such as loss of appetite, headaches, stomachache or seem to be withdrawn or upset, it could mean that there are more than simple nightmares and it is best to consult a physician.

What to do for night terrors

If night terrors happen every night around the same time, we can use the technique called “scheduled awakening” in order to treat them. This involves walking the child up for about 30 minutes before their episode, because it helps to reset the sleep cycle and prevent them from being blocked between the two sleeping stages.

Even though you don’t notice any change, continue to apply this method for at least three weeks, to be completely sure if it works or not. Also, it is important to check if your child is ok and try not to wake them up or to comfort them. Intervene only when your child is in danger, otherwise comforting won’t help. If you wake your child up you’ll notice that they are feeling extremely confused and need time to adjust.

As a parent, it is natural to become concerned and worry, no matter what symptoms may your child experience. The recurrence of the nightmares and especially night terrors are extremely unpleasant for all the parents and even though there is no specific medical treatment, they will reduce in both frequency and intensity with age.

Keep a close eye on your child changes, not only on any sleeping change, but on all the changes that may occur. This way you’ll be able to notice early any problem your child may have, so you can prevent complications and accelerate the treating process. It also helps to keep a diary of your child sleep, as soon as you notice any changes.

With a positive thinking, patience and confidence that everything will work out, you can overcome all the problems that may occur in the most beautiful and fulfilling journey of your life – the journey of being a parent.

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