Nightmares- How to Help a Child Who Fears Bedtime
My six year old son is a very active chatter box and smarty pants but last year, after we returned from our vacation, he started to have trouble going to bed on his own. Most six to nine year olds develop sleep troubles for no reason at all. They also have a very active imagination so we didn’t give in to his demands of sleeping with us for a while. His problem was that for a few nights, he had had nightmares and the consequence to it was that he started resisting going to bed on his own and in his own room. Either one of us – me or my husband, had to sleep with him.
I also had a one year old daughter then and I was expecting another baby soon. Bedtimes were chaotic for us, as his sister was having ear infections. Two months away from home and co-sleeping with us had terribly altered her sleeping habits as well. We consulted his doctor, talked to his psychologist aunt about the nightmares and read books and researched till finally four months later, things started looking normal again.
Children between the age of 4 and 6 years of age have Night terrors too. Night terrors and nightmares are not the same thing. Most of my search online landed me on night terrors and I found that very little has been talked about nightmares and most of the information was mixed up.
Nightmares are very common. It is as common as dreaming. We all have nightmares and nobody takes them seriously but what about a child who has had one for the first time? Nobody knows when or at what age nightmares begin but the trouble surely arises the first time one remembers it. For a young child, dreaming of monsters or death or a disturbing situation can be a very scary experience.
How to know if it is a Nightmare or a Night Terror?
A nightmare is when a child gets up crying or scared but is awake and consolable. He or she can hear you, understand you and narrate what has happened. The child may remember the dream. A child as young as 18months old can have a nightmare (worth remembering) too.
A night terror is when your child is thrashing wildly, shaking, screaming, unconsolable, in deep sleep and doesn’t remember the episode on waking up. You will not be able to wake them from it but once woken, they may look around surprised and not understand what happened. Night terrors are very common in children between the age of 4 and 6 years.
Why do Nightmares happen?
There are so many social, emotional and psychological reasons that can cause nightmares in children. Here is a checklist that can tell you why your child may be having a nightmare.
- Starting preschool or moving to a new school.
- Moving to a new home or place.
- One or both parents being sick or ill.
- A new addition to the family. Birth or adoption.
- Death of a close relative or pet.
- An accident or witness to an accident.
- Moving to own room or big kid bed.
- Watching too much age inappropriate television or playing video games that involve violence.
- Too much screen time during the day.
- Reading books that are beyond their level of imagination.
- Eating a heavy meal (high protein diet) right before bedtime.
- Sometimes children are unable to sleep because there is some need that hasn’t been met. It could be Sensory Perception disorder. (See below for details)
What to do when your child has nightmares?
- Assure them. Be there for your child and tell him so. Explain to them that nightmares are a common thing and that we all get them. Narrate examples of nightmares you have had and how you handled them or of a close relative.
- Analyse the cause of the nightmare. Most parents ignore trying to find a cause thinking that we all have them. The first time, I feel is okay… The second time too but if your child is repeatedly having bad dreams and he is disturbed, then it is time to find out ‘why’.
- Talk to them before, after and during a big life change. If he is moving to a new place or new school, tell him what to expect. Talk about school and making new friends and be positive. Many parents try to avoid the topic thinking that the child will be clingy or show negative attitude. Always prepare your child for that first day at school (new or old and especially right after that break or holidays). Assure him always that his parents will be there helping him and encourage him with the effort he is putting in.
- Make transition to a new room or bed very gradually. Let them help you in setting up their room or decorating it. Help them make their bed their own with their lovies, favourite bedding or stickers. Use their old mattress and pillow till they have accustomed to their new bed. We all love our pillows!
- Give them enough time to prepare for bed. Set and follow a routine with one or two of their favourite activities. Try to follow the routine as much as possible but make sure the routine isn’t too tedious. Never let them sleep right after a heavy or protein packed meal. They will have trouble digesting their food and they will be too tired to sleep well.
- Limit television and video games before bedtime. Children who have had too much screen time have a hardtime getting a good sleep. Their brain will be still active and running even when asleep. Think of it as your processor running in the background much like the computer when it is put on ‘standby’ mode.
- Always make sure your child is watching, reading and playing that which is appropriate for his age. Even a year or a few months (as in the case of babies) can make a whole lot of difference to a child’s mental ability to understand and analyse facts. What they cannot understand or grasp will scare them. Books require imagination. Reading something which they cannot imagine or perceive can make them understand quite the contrary and sometimes scary.
- When a new child is expected or if you are adopting a child, always involve the child in the process. Take them shopping, ask their help in decorating the necessary, include them when deciding on a name, get a gift for them to be given when you bring in the new addition.
- When any of you is sick, assure the kids that you will be okay, that you will all do what you love doing soon and that this is just for sometime. My children were so anxious when I was admitted. There was no time to explain as it was all sudden. We suffered for months.
- At bedtime, try to tell stories that are funny and entertaining to create a calm and fun bedtime. A child who goes to bed smiling and giggling is less likely to get very serious dreams, no? (This worked with my son!) We read this book ‘When I was little, I was always afraid’ recently. My children love it.
- Try to keep a night light in your child’s room. If you feel your child is getting up too often during the night or if the child’s bedroom is not close enough for you to hear him, get an audio or video monitor. This will re-assure the child that mom-dad are watching him (protecting him) and also helps check that the child doesn’t insist on sleeping in your room.
- It could be a sensory issue too. Children are unable to tell those apart. For example, if a child is sensitive to touch and his pajamas are making his skin crawl, he may tell you that there are bugs in his bed. Do check this article for details about SPD and calm and gentle ways to get your child to sleep.
- Check out this post for 40+ Ways to Stop Kids from Being afraid of bedtime monsters. Some of these are really fun!
What not to do when your child is having a nightmare:
- Never ignore his feelings. Don’t belittle them or laugh at their feelings.
- Never ask them to grow up. They are trying. It isn’t easy growing up.
- Never blame them. Never blame a child for death or sickness. Sometimes, when we ourselves are healing and trying to get over it, we say things which we really don’t mean. Sometimes, people who come to visit say stuff that should never be said to a child. Always be over protective of your children during hard times.
- Try not to move them to your room or bed. This is the most common mistake parents make: They start co-sleeping because the child is scared. When we invite them to our bed once, they know they can make it to your bed again. They also start associating negative feelings towards their bed and bedroom. Trust me, this becomes a problem before you can even say the word ‘trouble’! You can go sleep in their bed if you like or on their floor but don’t invite them to yours. It is much easier for you to walk out of their rooms in the middle of the night than move them to theirs.
- Never make up unbelievable stories. They may be little but they are not fools. My six year old never believed in magic and I know a couple of others who I have worked with who don’t either. Most children don’t believe that throwing magic dust or saying that you have said the ‘spell’ will work. Just stick to reality.
Nightmares are just dreams. Bedtime fears can be overcome. The more quickly we can explain this to a child, the more quickly they will learn to ignore them. As it is, kids or adults, we tend to fear that which we cannot explain.