Nightmares and fears
With Halloween and Bonfire just past, this is the time of year that can trigger nightmares’ and fears of the dark for your child.
We share our top tips to help your child cope with this difficult time.
What is a nightmare?
Nightmares occur in REM or ‘dreaming’ sleep. So they usually happen in the second half of the night towards the morning, when REM sleep becomes more frequent. Nightmares are very common in young children, reaching a peak between three and six years old, when about a quarter of children have at least one nightmare a week. However, they can happen as early as two years old.
As most of us will remember, common themes are being chased by a monster or animal, or being stuck somewhere you can’t escape from. While the subjects are extreme and frightening at the time, nightmares are perfectly normal reactions to the stresses and strains of growing up and are often caused by a healthy development of the imagination.
In the daytime
To take the fear out of the dark encourage your child to play games in the house such as hide and seek, treasure hunts and timing to go upstairs fast games. Start with the games downstairs and as they become more confident encourage them to hide or look for treasure upstairs with you remaining downstairs. You could then graduate to hiding or seeking treasure in the dark with torches. As your child is having fun they soon forget to be scared and start to build up their confidence in the dark
Give comfort and reassurance
Your child is quite likely to call out or come to you in some distress when he has had a nightmare. The best thing to do is to listen to and reassure him and if necessary to stay with him until he has calmed down. It is important to remember that under the age of four to five, children cannot tell the difference between a dream and reality, so it is more important to comfort them than to try to rationally explain it away.
If a child has recurrent nightmares about the same thing, it can be useful to talk through this the next day and help your child to think up a happy ending, such as making friends with the monster. This can help to defuse the power of the nightmare and the hold its repetition may have on him. Make the monster into a character of fun. During the day draw silly pictures with your child and make up silly monster songs.
Fear of the dark!
This problem is widespread amongst young children and starts when their imagination kicks in. Children do eventually grow out of this fear, but in the meantime it can make them reluctant to go to bed and wake them at night. Most children are reassured by the presence of a night light in their bedroom. Set up a dim nightlight in your child’s bedroom, this will not stop them sleeping as the receptors in our eyes that trigger the sleep hormone melatonin respond to dim light. Bright lights however will however suppress melatonin and this can impact on sleep.
Go into your child’s bedroom when it’s dark and with a child’s eye look around the bedroom to see if there is anything in the room that could look scary at night. A favourite cuddly toy in the day can turn into a scary monster in the dark.
A friendly bedtime toy
Having a security object in bed overnight such as a special cuddly toy can help your child feel more relaxed and happy at bedtime and throughout the night.
Scary TV and books
Vet all the books and TV programmes your child could be watching. Many traditional bedtime stories feature wolves, witches and bears!
Discuss worries and fear in the day
It is best not to use bedtime to discuss your child’s worries as this could trigger monster thoughts just as they are trying to go to sleep. Instead have some quiet 1 to 1 time with you earlier in the day and at bedtime set limits about chatting at bedtime. After you’ve said goodnight consider using a relaxation and breathing technique to help relax your child at bedtime and fall asleep.
I don’t want you to leave!
If your child gets anxious about you leaving at bedtime, explain that you will regularly check in on him. Return after only 2 to 5 minutes and from the doorway, briefly reassure your child.
Keep repeating this until he goes to sleep or is happy for you leave.
If having done all these things you are still having problems with your child’s sleep please get in touch.
You can speak a sleep therapists today for a free sleep assessment.
Call us on 020 8444 0040