Childhood Nightmares and Bedtime Fears

The active imagination of a child can sometimes make it difficult to sleep at night when bedtime fears crop up. Young children between the ages of three and six are most prone to have nightmares as fears, such as being in the dark or monsters under the bed, concern them. Research estimates that as many half 50 percent of children have occasional nightmares in early childhood. Nightmares typically involve distressing images which disturb sleep and can create problem with everyday life. Upon awakening from a nightmare, children may be disoriented in their surroundings and will likely seek comfort from parents who are asleep.

What are nightmares?

A nightmare consists of a vivid, disturbing dream involving an imagined danger or threat. These dreams can be upsetting because of the themes, or images of scary figures such as ghosts, vicious animals, bad people, phobias, or monsters. It is common for there to be a perceived loss of control or fear of being hurt. Nightmares differ from night terrors, which are more intense and can create panic attacks. Children who experience night terrors usually wake up confused and terrified, but they are less likely to be able to remember the content of the dreams.

Why do nightmares occur?

Why children have nightmares is unknown, but the risk factors include being too tired, having an irregular sleep routine, and experiencing stress and anxiety. They are a normal stage of childhood development and can be spurred by life-altering events, such as starting school, moving to a new home, or coping with parents divorcing. Sometimes there is no identifiable reason for a nightmare, or it may stem from something which is unknown. Young children are more likely to be afraid of abstract things while older children usually fear things which are more realistic, such as burglars or natural disasters rather than vampires or zombies.

When do nightmares happen?

Sleep is comprised of two different phases. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is when dreaming occurs, and nightmares are most likely to occur in the middle of the night or early in the morning, since that is when REM sleep usually takes place. The other sleep phase, non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) alternates with REM sleep every 90 to 100 minutes in cycles.

What can parents do for children who have nightmares?

A parent can provide reassurance to a distressed, anxious child by listening and understanding. What is most important is to provide reassurance and communicating the idea of safety. To help prevent future recurrences of nightmares, a parent can steer clear of allowing television or internet before bedtime, which may set the stage for an overactive imagination to run wild.

A parent can also be proactive by teaching coping skills and alternative ways to respond rather than waking the sleeping parents. By setting limits and boundaries, behaviors, such as waking up the parents, won’t be reinforced and a child will learn that there are more productive ways to respond to nightmares. Positive reinforcement for staying in bed can encourage a child to use self-soothing methods at nighttime. To ease a child into these adjustments, a parent may consider staying in the room once or twice until the child falls asleep rather than allowing the child to come to the parents’ room in the middle of the night. Tell your child you will check up on him or her throughout the night, too. Try not to allow the child to feel dependent on you in order to foster a healthy relationship.

A good way to help children in overcoming nightmares is to be a role model and provide examples of your own fears and how you have overcome them. Another way to teach coping mechanisms is to read a children’s story about conquering fears. For children who are afraid of the dark, a nightlight is useful as long as it doesn’t prevent a child from falling asleep. If the door is slightly open, a child may feel more secure and not as isolated.

Getting children to have fun in a dark environment can teach a child to associate the darkness with a sense of safety. Examples include playing flashlight tag or having glow-in-the dark toys. A pet in bed for company is very useful for children, even a bedside fish tank. A security object like a blanket or stuffed animal is also a viable option.

It’s possible that a child may learn that by expressing fears he can avoid bedtime. Endless justifications for why a child doesn’t want to go to bed can be used, but fear may be just an excuse. Many young children resist going to sleep and these bedtime battles can become exhausting for parents and children alike. Children with siblings sometimes engage in roughhousing or horseplay rather than going to sleep. Parents should keep calm and not lose their temper, as this can worsen the problem.

As always, sleep good hygiene can help children get the best possible sleep and be well-rested and alert during the daytime. A structured bedtime routine can help a child fall asleep while feeling secure. Remember to unplug all gadgets in the hours before bedtime and turn off the TV, video games, or computer. Have your child associate the bedroom with sleep, not watching TV. In fact, it’s better if a child doesn’t have a TV or computer in the bedroom.

A well-rested child is more equipped to learn, grow and be self-disciplined.

To learn more about nightmares treatment, call The Los Angeles Sleep Study Institute at 1-855-690-0563.