We’ve all felt the grips of a really scary dream. Waking with a gasp, face flushed, heart racing, unable to recognise what’s real and what’s not. It’s a completely unnerving feeling and one you may agree you could do without.
It’s unpleasant enough to experience this unconscious terror yourself – it’s a whole other level of helplessness watching your child experience it.
However, we’d like to first share a piece of reassurance. These sleep disruptions are common and, in most cases, are completely benign. Meaning, from a healthy sleep standpoint, they do not have to be high on your radar. But that doesn’t make them any less disruptive. And it can be difficult knowing what is actually happening – the terms night terror and nightmare get thrown around a lot.
So, let’s explore what’s going on here.
Most parents will be woken at least once in their child’s life, to their little one screaming and crying from having a bad dream. Nightmares are especially prevalent in children who are between two and three years of age, as their imagination runs wild.
Children want to be comforted during this time and even though it might take them a bit of time to let go of the scary thoughts and fall back asleep they will be comforted by the presence of a parent.
Nightmares are scary dreams and can be triggered by movies, videos, books or even stories. These bad dreams can also occur during times of change or trauma. Nightmares are usually infrequent, but it is advisable to seek assistance from a play therapist if they do become more frequent.
Night terrors on the other hand are quite a different experience for both the little one and for the parents. Most commonly, night terrors occur when the child is between four and eight years old, but there have been cases reported where children as young as 18 months old also experience night terrors. These happen more frequently at night and occur more regularly over a specified time.
Parents can be quite alarmed by a night terror as their child can appear quite anxious and could scream for between 5 and 15 minutes, and the presence of the parent will not comfort the child, or even worse, it could frighten their child. These night terrors are more upsetting though for parents than for the child as children cannot remember them.
Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen in NON-REM sleep and are not bad dreams. They can be caused by fevers, medication and most commonly from sleep deprivation (lack of sleep).
Here are some ways to deal with night terrors and tips for trying to avoid them:
- First, make sure that when it occurs your child is safe. There is no need to try to calm your child; just be there and wait it out. Trying to contain them could prolong the night terror.
- Do not speak or ask them about it the next day. This can make them afraid and worry as they are not aware it is happening.
- Implement a set bedtime routine that is not too long (around 30 minutes) and not too late. Children up to the age of five years need between 11 and 12 hours of sleep at night, thus bedtime should be around 19h00. A child older than 5 years can enjoy bedtime at around 19h30.
- Avoid screen time for at least two hours before bedtime. As such, falling asleep in front of the TV should never happen.
Night terrors can be scary but are rarely something of concern. Implementing better sleep routines and ensuring your child gets rest that is needed, which is a solid 11 to 12 hours of sleep, can improve their sleep quality and lesson the occurrence of night terrors.
Written for www.clamberclub.com by Jolandi Becker of Good Night Baby
Tel: 067 182 3157