Why is my child having night mares?
Night terrors and nightmares are pretty common in young children and one of the biggest cause of sleep issues.
Sadly all children will have a night terror or nightmare at some point during their life. It’s a horrid, scary and worrying thing to go through for both parent and child, and a worry I often help parents with through my advice service.
If your little one has suddenly started waking in the night because of night terrors or nightmares, my top tips can help you get bedtimes back to a happy sleep and say goodbye to those nasties in the night.
What’s the difference between a night terror and nightmare?
A night terror, also known as a sleep terror predominantly affects young children, and causes feelings of terror or dread. A night terror typically occurs in the first half hour to an hour of sleep.
Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they’re not usually cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue, so try not to worry.
Little ones who have night terrors usually shout out or scream in their sleep, sit or stand up, and have a look of fear on their face. They will usually sweat, breathe fast and have a rapid heart rate.
What causes night terrors?
- Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep. This may happen because the central nervous system which regulates sleep and waking brain activity, is still maturing.
- Some children may even inherit a tendency for this over-arousal (about 80% who have night terrors have a family member who also has experienced them or sleepwalking!)
- Night terrors are most commonly triggered by being overtired, so ensure your little love has a good routine and if they are under 3, ensure they are having at least an hours rest-time or nap during the day. This can be a full sleep in their bed, or quiet time looking at books or watching TV.
- Sometimes sleeping in a new bed or away from home can trigger a night terror.
- illness/fever can also cause night terrors.
What can I do to help?
The best possible way to handle night terrors is to comfort and reassure your little one and snuggle them back down in their bed. It’s tempting to pick up your child and take them into your own bed, but it’s really important to keep them in their own bed so they don’t associate the bad dream with their bedroom. This can make bedtimes a little stressful and unhappy for you all.
A child who is used to sleeping all night in their own bed may suddenly not want to sleep there anymore, as they associate the ‘bad experience’ with their room and a happier experience in with you in your bed. It is far better to snuggle in with them in their bed until they are calm and settled, than inviting them into your own bed.
Stay with your child until they are calm and their breathing is settled. Stroke their head and cuddle them back into bed. it’s important to let them get back to sleep themselves- don’t be tempted to rock, cuddle or stroke them to sleep as they may feel startled if they wake to find you not there.
A nightmare is an ‘bad’ dream that usually causes upset and fear, and are pretty common in young children. Unlike night terrors, a nightmare usually occurs sometime after 1 1/2 hours of sleep.
If your little one has had a nightmare they will find it hard to get back to sleep. They usually will be very distressed and upset, and in extreme cases find settling at night (through worry of a nightmare returning) very difficult.
When nightmares become more frequent or occur on a regular basis, it may be a sign of stress in your child’s life or environment. Don’t panic! This doesn’t necessaraly mean something terrible and traumatic, it can be something as simple as changing teachers at school, moving house, starting a new school or a new sibling arrival.
What causes night terrors?
- Eating late at night is a big contributor to nightmares. (Eating before bed triggers an increase in the body’s metabolism and brain activity.)
- Loss: The of a relative or even family pet can trigger nightmares, as can family separations. If you feel that these may be the cause of your childs bad dreams, it’s important to address the issues in the day by talking, drawing, reading and reassuring them through the difficult time.
- Frightening stories/TV shows: Something not so scary to grown-ups can be really frightening for children, so have a think about what your little ones are watching or reading/looking at during the day. Nightmares can often happen after reading or watching frightening things before bed, so while I’d not like to discourage bedtime stories, I’d advise steering clear of frightening books (older children) or perhaps monster stories for very young children if they have started to have nightmares.
- Over-tiredness: Nightmares are most commonly triggered by being overtired, so ensure your child has a good daily routine and if they are under 3, ensure they are having at least an hours rest-time or nap during the day. This can be a full sleep in their bed, or quiet time looking at books or watching TV.
- Sometimes sleeping in a new bed or away from home can trigger a nightmare.
What can I do to help?
If you have suffered a nightmare yourself, you will possibly remember the feelings of worry and fear after. Sometimes bad dreams seem very real and can be terribly upsetting.
Like night terrors, the best possible way to handle night terrors is to cuddle and reassure your little one and snuggle them back down in their bed. Make them feel safe again and talk through the dream with them if they can remember it.
Stay with your little one until they are calm and their breathing is settled. Stroke their head and cuddle them back into bed. As mentioned before, it’s really important to let them get back to sleep themselves – don’t be tempted to rock, cuddle or stroke them to sleep.
During the day, read books about having bad dreams to reassure your child these are a normal thing and nothing to worry about.
Routine is key – make sure your child has a good bedtime routine, and is going to bed at a reasonable time to get a good night’s sleep. Regular bathtime, story, snuggles and main lights-out each night, will reassure and calm your little one before bed.
Invest in a low light – nightlight to reassure and help with any fears of the dark that often come with nightmares.
As a mum myself, I understand how distressing it is for you as a parent, but remember that nightmares and night terrors are normal, and they will pass and are part of childhood. If you have any concerns and would like more advice and help, please get in touch via the contact page for my free parenting advice service.