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Nightmares and Night Terrors

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Nightmares and night terrors are terms that often get mixed up when children experience spooks in the night. However, just like the distinction between witches and wizards, there is a clear contrast between these eerie nocturnal phenomena, both in their indicators and in how they should be addressed during the Halloween season.

Nightmares

Causes: Nightmares are a common occurrence in young children, particularly between the ages of 2 and 4. These unsettling dreams often coincide with the emergence of normal fears and a vivid imagination. Various factors can trigger nightmares, including transitions like toilet training or moving to a “big bed,” changes in childcare or school environments, spooky costume changes or even the introduction of a new sibling, exposure to frightening stories, shows, or films, heightened excitement before bedtime, and feelings of anxiety or stress during the day.

Identification: A child who awakes crying, seeking comfort, and struggling to fall back asleep likely had a nightmare. These episodes primarily happen during the latter part of the night, during the REM sleep phase. Children typically recall these bad dreams and may remain disturbed by them the following day.

Prevention: To minimise the occurrence of nightmares, focus on reducing overall stress and ensuring your child gets adequate sleep. Establishing a calming and predictable bedtime routine can be helpful, incorporating elements like a soothing bath, an uplifting bedtime story (even one that addresses nightmares), and the use of a night light.

Support: When your child has a nightmare, respond promptly by providing physical reassurance through hugs and comfort. While bringing them to your bed may be tempting, it’s advisable to stay in their room to avoid creating a habit that’s difficult to break. Acknowledge and empathise with your child’s fears, reassuring them of their safety. Encourage them to share details about the nightmare if they wish, but don’t press them. Remind them that it was “only a dream” if they remain upset, as they are capable of distinguishing reality from fantasy at this age.

Night Terrors

Causes: Night terrors, although similar in some ways to nightmares, manifest differently and are less common, occurring in approximately 3% of children. They typically happen between the ages of 3 and 12 and are slightly more prevalent among boys. Unlike nightmares that occur during REM sleep, night terrors take place during deep non-REM sleep. These episodes are not dreams but rather reactions during the transition between sleep phases.

Identification: Night terrors often occur about two to three hours after a child falls asleep, during the shift from deep non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. During a night terror, a child may abruptly sit up, shout or scream, breathe rapidly, thrash around, and exhibit agitation. In some cases, children may even get out of bed with their eyes open. Strikingly, children typically have no recollection of these episodes the next morning.

Prevention: While there is no specific treatment for night terrors, you can reduce their likelihood by minimising stress, adhering to a consistent routine, and ensuring your child gets enough rest to avoid becoming overtired.

Support: During a night terror, it’s best to remain calm and not wake your child. Wait with them to ensure their safety, as they often settle down and return to sleep on their own. If night terrors persist or become frequent, consult a doctor to discuss the possibility of a referral to a medical sleep specialist.

Should you encounter any mysterious disturbances in your little one’s sleep during this Halloween season, please don’t hesitate to reach out for a free 15-minute consultation.

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