Dear Dr. Michelle:
My 6-year-old son has a lot of nightmares and sometimes I wonder if he is having night terrors. Is there something that I can do to stop these from occurring?
Nightmares are dreams that occur during the dream cycle when the brain is the most active. This cycle is known as REM, or rapid eye movement, and is a normal and healthy part of the sleep cycle.
It is not exactly known why nightmares occur, but there are some identified associations. Nightmares can happen for children with overactive imaginations or those experiencing consistent lack of sleep or increased stress. Bad or traumatic experiences can also generate nightmares as the brain tries to sort through increased emotions or feelings. Here are some things you can do to help lessen the likelihood of nightmares.
Tips on How To Help Lessen the Likelihood of Nightmares
- Ensure that you avoid scary stories, images, or movies, particularly before bedtime.
- Identify areas of stress in your child’s life and help to reduce it.
- Have a consistent bedtime and include an upbeat positive story with happy images.
- Make sure that your child does not go to bed on a full stomach. A full stomach increases internal physical sensations, and if painful, can lead to negative emotions and feelings for the brain to work out.
- If your child has experienced a traumatic event and they are having nightmares, this could be a sign that they need more help to process the trauma. In this case, seek therapy.
- If your son cannot be consoled from his nightmares, start talking to him about the difference between what is real and what is fake. Use examples and explain how dreams and nightmares fall into the fake category.
Nightmares vs Night Terrors
There is a difference between nightmares and night terrors. While nightmares are dreams that include images that cause distress, a night terror results from an over-aroused central nervous system. Nightmares are easily remembered and can frequently cause a child to wake up, whereas night terrors are more of a physical reaction. Night terrors are rare for most children, can be hereditary, and do not typically result in a child waking up or remembering the event.
Many of the same interventions used to help prevent nightmares can also be used to help avoid night terrors. The difference with night terrors is that your child will most likely not wake up and it is better if you do not wake them; rather, just observe your child through the event so that he doesn’t hurt himself, (for example if he started sleepwalking), and allow his body to work through the experience.
KidsHealth.org is a very helpful website that provides information about children’s sleep issues, such as nightmares and night terrors. The website covers causes, what you can do to address the issues and helpful tips to intervene.
If you learn that your son is having night terrors or nightmares and they persist and get worse despite your interventions, take your child to the doctor for an assessment to ensure that there is not a physical issue going on.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.