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Nightmares and what you need to know about them.

Nightmares like most dreams come during the stage of sleep when the brain is very active. The vivid images the brain is processing can seem as real as the emotions they might trigger.

Nightmares are a huge worry for children; they come in the middle of the night, when parents are least prepared to help.

When children awaken from a nightmare, the images are still fresh and can seem real. So it is natural for them to feel terrified and upset and to call out to a parent for comfort. These can go on to haunt children for weeks on end and make them cranky and sleep-deprived. 

As the mother of twins both my children went through nightmares in different stages in their life. They both acted and experienced nightmares differently. My son would wake up, shout for us from his bed and when we comforted him he almost immediately went back to sleep. However, our daughter used to get hysterical and cry for an hour sometimes more and it took us a while to comfort her and go to sleep. We later discovered that she in fact had night terrors. They are now 12 years old and we have seen the back of these vicious nightmares and night terrors.

There is a difference between Nightmares and Night Terrors. Night terrors is a sleep disorder, and differ from nightmares and occur during deep sleep (non-REM) cycles in the first half of the night. A night terror bout is often signified by a loud scream and the individual sitting upright in a panicked state, though unaware of any of the involuntary action. The thrashing of limbs and rapid body movements are witnessed in more extreme cases. Children wake up in the morning unaware of their activity throughout the night.

Professor Dieter Wolke of Warwick University explained whilst doing a study in February 2014, "We certainly don't want to worry parents with this news; three in every four children experience nightmares at this young age. However, nightmares over a prolonged period or bouts of night terrors that persist into adolescence can be an early indicator of something more significant in later life."

By the age of twelve, around one in four (24.4%) of children in the study reported having suffered from nightmares in the previous six months, with fewer than one in ten (9.3%) experiencing episodes of night terrors during the same period.

Nightmares are common in young children. According to research, nearly 75% of school-age children experience nightmares, and 15% are frequent. They peak at age seven to nine. Common themes are family safety or intruders (56%), inside or outside noises (48%), bad dreams (39%) and imaginary creatures (22%).

Nightmares may be linked with things that have happened during the day, especially things which are worrying, such as starting school, getting lost, being bullied, being barked at by a dog, having something happen to the family (such as illness or family fights) or something bad happening in the world (something seen on TV for example). 

Nightmares also tend to happen more often if children are not getting enough sleep

A cross-sectional study was conducted in April 2011 by collecting the data on sociodemographic, sleep, behavioural, and family-related information from a total of 6359 children (age: mean [SD] = 9.2 [1.8] years; girls: 49.9%) and their reported biological parents.

Frequent nightmares in children were significantly associated with hyper-activity.

Frequent nightmares in children are associated with a constellation of child-, sleep-, and family-related factors, including comorbid sleep problems, such as insomnia and parasomnia, family economic status, and parental predisposition. Frequent nightmares are independently associated with emotional and behavioural problems in children.

"Frequent nightmares are independently

associated with emotional and

behavioural problems in children.”

In my work as a NLP Coach, Hypnotherapist and Child Therapist, many young clients are referred to me with problems caused by bad dreams and sleep problems as a result of nightmares. 

My work in this area focusses on solutions by starting to look at their bed time routine.

Sometimes just be bringing forward the bedtime by about 15 minutes can help with nightmares.

Dr Helen Fisher, of King's College London, said, "The best advice is to try to maintain a lifestyle that promotes healthy sleep hygiene for your child, by creating an environment that allows for the best possible quality of sleep. Diet is a key part of this, such as avoiding sugary drinks before bed, but at that young age we'd always recommend removing any affecting stimuli from the bedroom -- be it television, video games or otherwise. That's the most practical change you can make."

As children gain confidence in dealing with the problems of growing up, nightmares tend to become fewer, but something bad, like a burglary, can bring them back for a while. 

Here are some of the things you can do as a parent if your child wakes up with a nightmare.

1. Reassure your child that you're there. Your calm presence helps your child feel safe and protected after waking up feeling afraid.

2. Label what's happened.

3. Offer comfort.

4. Mood lighting.

5. Help your child go back to sleep.

6. Be a good listener.

Nightmares have a clear link to anxiety, but we do not know which comes first. Children can learn coping strategies to manage – they include ignoring or distracting (50%) or hugging a soft toy (9.3%). It is significant that only a small percentage i.e 27.9% of children talk to their parents about bad dreams. 

Sleep disruptions, whether you remember them or not, can negatively affect daytime enegery levels leading to a negative spiral of events. If nightmares are very disturbing, or if they keep happening for a month or two, and if the causes are difficult to work out, then it may help to get some professional advice.

Namita Bhatia

Hypnotherapist & NLP Coach


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