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Helping your child cope with nightmares

“One more story, Daddy.” “One more song, Mummy?” “No, no, just a few more minutes, please! I don’t want to go to bed.” 

Does this bedtime tango sound familiar?

Sometimes children try to delay bedtime because they’re having too much fun playing or just don’t want to go to sleep yet, but what if your child stalls bedtime because he’s afraid of having a nightmare?

Bogeymen and things that go ‘bump'

Nightmares are very common. Up to 75 per cent of children recall experiencing nightmares at some point in their lives. Dionne Joseph, a chartered clinical psychologist (U.K.) based in Doha, suspects that the increased stress and anxiety common with expats may account for higher rates of nightmares and bad dreams among children in Qatar. However, she notes, currently there are no Qatar-specific studies on childhood sleep disturbances such as nightmares.

Not to be mistaken with night terrors, which are quite rare, occur early in the night and are difficult to soothe, nightmares occur late in sleep, during the REM stage when we are most close to waking. This is why children often remember their dreams and nightmares.

Although researchers are still unsure of the reason behind why nightmares occur, the consensus is that they are a normal and a beneficial element of neurodevelopment. They are believed to be a coping mechanism for the stressful things children experience while awake—seeing something scary, starting a new school or moving to another country. In this case, it’s important to focus on what is causing the nightmare, not the nightmare itself. Nightmares also coincide with fevers and illness so it’s always a good idea to rule out health issues.

Nightmares can be symptomatic of an underlying anxiety problem, but looking at other aspects of your child’s life can easily help identify this. Are they having trouble with school, friendships, eating, going to the toilet? Do they complain that nobody likes them or that they don’t like themselves? If so, it’s best to seek professional help as soon as possible. You should also seek help if you suspect your child is suffering from night terrors.

Calming their fears

When your child wakes from a nightmare, don’t pressure them to describe or recall the dream as this can often reinforce the memory and make it more vivid. Be wary of activities like checking under the bed for monsters or using “monster sprays.” These can backfire as they reinforce the idea that monsters or other scary creatures exist. Also, it’s ok to stay with your child until they calm down but try to refrain from sleeping in their room or letting them sleep in your bed after a nightmare or you risk encouraging a long-term sleep dependency issue. 

Instead, Joseph recommends to try to redirect your child’s thoughts: take them to the bathroom to wipe their face, discuss the fun things they have planned for later in the week, try deep breathing exercises with them and stay with them until they calm down. Over time, children can develop their own techniques whether it’s listening to music, reading a book or another low-intensity distraction (not TV!).

The National Sleep Foundation in the U.S. agrees: teaching your child coping skills will give him or her the confidence to overcome fears and concerns when you are unavailable (e.g., sleepovers). They say that the key to helping your child is to be soothing and responsive.

When your child fears sleep

Most of the time nightmares will resolve without intervention. If your child begins to fear sleep, you may need to help them work through this fear. However, it’s important to not pathologise the occasional nightmare, Joseph counsels. “The key thing for parents to do, particularly with younger children is to provide reassurance without encouraging (or in psychology-speak, ‘re-enforcing’) the nightmare or behaviours that surround it,” she says.

Coping strategies

  • Provide a security item—blanket, stuffed animal, etc.
  • Leave a night light on in your child’s bedroom.
  • Have your child imagine a happy ending to their nightmare, perhaps one where they overcome the fear on their own.
  • Hang a dreamcatcher over your child’s bed to “catch” the bad dreams.
  • Avoid intense or scary movies, TV or stories closeto bedtime.
  • Practice deep breathing and calming techniques—inhale for three seconds, pause for two seconds, exhale for three seconds.
  • Encourage good sleeping habits—regular bedtimes and ample sleep.

Although some sleep experts suggest activities such as having your child draw and then tear up pictures of their nightmares or building dream catchers, Joseph cautions against placing too much emphasis on the nightmares with these short-term methods. She says, “The parent is inadvertently ‘teaching’ the child to become more anxious, partly by drawing attention to the nightmare and partly by not teaching the child more adaptive internal strategies of dealing with their fears.” These techniques could backfire by transferring the underlying anxiety onto something else in the child’s life. 

That said, when her son was a baby, she says that he suffered from terrible nightmares. “I got a sleep catcher from an Indian reservation in Canada, put it over his cot and he never had another nightmare again. Go figure!”

Whichever solution works for your child, it is important to remember that nightmares are a normal part of development. The next time your child wakes in the middle of the night, fearful from a nightmare, be patient, comfort them and show them how to overcome their night-time fears. 

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