Nightmare and Night Terrors

By Hilary Gibson, Staff Writer

 

Nightmares are scary dreams which most children will experience every so often. Usually, nightmares occur late into a child’s sleep period (between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.), with the child waking up and coming into your room to seek comfort.

Children may want to tell you what happened in the dream and why it was scary to them. Even if they’ve talked it out, they may have trouble going back to sleep. Also, don’t be surprised if your child has the same nightmare again throughout the week. 

Nightmares can often happen after a child has experienced a stressful physical or emotional event (injections, being left alone, being hungry, etc.). In the first 6 months after such an event, a child may have nightmares, which can actually be a healthy way for the child to come to grips with what has been happening in their life, getting them adjusted to any changes caused by a particular event, allowing them to reach a final acceptance and peace. 

Keep track of any nightmares that seem to occur too frequently to make sure that you know if your child’s sleep is being continuously disturbed. If this is the case, your child’s ability to function during the day may be adversely affected by their lack of sleep and stress caused by the continual nightmare. Should this happen, speak with your child’s pediatrician as to whether some form of treatment may be required. More often than not, nightmares, even repetitive ones over a short period of time, usually don’t pose much of a threat. 

Night terrors, also known as confusional arousal or partial arousal, happen during deep sleep (usually between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.). A child having a night terror will often wake up screaming, sweating, and breathing fast. If you were to look at your child’s eyes during a night terror, you’d notice that their pupils may look even larger than normal. He or she may still be asleep although their eyes may be open, and it may appear as though they are looking through you. Your child may call out your name, yet seem unable to recognize you. Also, they may be so confused that they will not be able to answer you when asked what’s wrong. As you comfort your child, they may begin to scream even louder, and may start to flail their arms about in order to defend themselves from what is scaring them. It’s very difficult to actually wake your child from a night terror, however, when they do wake up, they usually won’t remember what just happened. Children experiencing a night terror are not actually dreaming, so once an episode is over, they will generally settle back to a quiet sleep without any difficulty. 

Children enter their deepest sleep of the night within 15 minutes of falling asleep. This stage of deep, non-REM sleep usually lasts between 45 to 75 minutes. It’s at this point when children typically transition from deep sleep to a lighter stage of sleep or even wake up briefly before falling back to sleep. Night terrors happen when a child becomes stuck in the deepest stage of sleep, and is unable to come out of it and move on to the next stage of sleep. The episode may last as short as a minute, or as long as 40 minutes. 

Parents should not try to comfort the child through holding or cuddling when a night terror happens since this may give the child an even stronger sense of being forceably restrained. Trying to wake them will prolong an episode, however turning on some lights may be calming. You should also protect your child from injury by standing between them and windows, or moving furniture. 

Night terrors can be treated with medications, hypnotherapy, or with other types of relaxation training if there seems to be a serious problem. However, the best way to try and “treat” night terrors is through prevention. Keeping your child from getting overly tired, by carefully scheduling waking and sleeping times, and by taking the child to the bathroom before your bedtime can help in contributing to the prevention of night terrors.

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