Nightmares

Corrine Langill, RN, BScN   CHEO

Manager, Health Promotion and Injury Prevention 

Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario

The blood-curdling scream wrenches you from a deep sleep.  Heart racing, you stumble, barefoot, into your child's room (and ow!! Who left that lego on the floor?!).  "The monster!" your child whimpers, "is after me!"  This is one busy monster, haunting your child's dreams for the second time this week.  And he's also responsible for your lego injuries and loss of precious sleep.  

So what are nightmares, really?  Everyone has experienced nightmares, so we understand how terrifying they can be.  Even so, they don't harm us.  And they aren't warnings that something bad is going to happen.  Researchers believe that nightmares are a complex mixture of memories, feelings and information we've come across while awake.  Sometimes nightmares happen for no reason.  Sometimes they may be caused by:

  • Stressful events during the day
  • Scary movies or reading scary books before bed
  • High fevers or some medications
  • Painful memories
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Being over-tired
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Traumatic events.

How can you help?

Your child - no matter how old - needs to be able to come to you for comfort when they wake from a nightmare.  For this to happen, you need to have a warm, close bond with your child or teen.  This bond is strengthened when you:

  • Treat your child with warmth, affection and compassion
  • Have reasonable expectations for behaviour, which make sense for your child's age
  • Show that you understand your child's feelings, for example, "Whoa - that does sound scary!"

If your child or teen has nightmares:

  • Respond quickly with comfort when your child or teen wakes from a nightmare.  Some parents find it helps to let a child come into their bed until the child feels safer.
  • During the day, when things are calm, ask about the nightmare.  Chat about the feelings they cause.
  • Re-write the nightmare the day after.  Write out the nightmare with your child. Then together, come up with a new ending.
  • Help older children and teens create a poster to look at when a nightmare wakes them.  They can list and draw things to do when they have a nightmare, like:
  • Turn on the light
  • Tell you
  • Take deep breaths
  • Rock in a rocking chair
  • Listen to calming music
  • Cuddle with a pet

Preventing

  • Let your child sleep with a special stuffed toy or blanket.  Sharing a room with a pet may also help, although sleeping with a pet can get in the way of a good night's sleep.
  • Limit screen time during the day.  And turn off screens an hour before bed.
  • Make sure your child gets enough physical activity (at least an hour every day!)
  • Make sure your child or teen gets enough sleep.  Regular bed and wake up times, even on the weekends, will help.

When to get help

Speak to your health care provider if the nightmares are causing problems with sleep or distress.  There are a number of ways that professionals can help.  Children and youth having nightmares after a traumatic event may need more intensive support. 

Did you know....

  • Some writers and artists say they have been inspired by their nightmares (for example, Stephen King and Salvador Dali).
  • Your child or teen may need more sleep than you think - children 5-10 years need 10-12 hours each night, and teens need 9-10 hours of sleep every night.
  • Nightmares often 'peak' when children are about 10 years old, and then happen less often after that.

Helpful websites

 

 

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