What to do about nightmares in children? Nightmares in children are not serious. They are part of the child’s evolution. They express the psychological and emotional preoccupations of the child’s life, who relives them intensely at night.
Nightmare in the child: definition
A bad dream appears in a child’s sleep between 1 and 6 years in the second part of the night in the REM sleep phase. For this reason, the child does not move and does not get up while sleeping. This is also why the child remembers his nightmare.
– Like dreams, nightmares are essential for growing and evolving. The periods when they are more numerous are part of the normal process of evolution.
– The child wakes up, worried, after an unpleasant or even distressing dream that he or she recounts in detail. Then, the parents listen to him, reassure him, and help him to go back to sleep serenely.
– Physical manifestations are minimal or absent.
Good to know: dreams allow the child to sort out the moments of joy, difficulties, and attractive or unattractive finds and, therefore, to take a step back.
Factors that may contribute to a child’s nightmares
Explain to your child the major events that disrupt his or her life and that of the family so that he or she can understand (arrival of a baby, starting daycare, moving…).
Make sure that your child does not have any physical pain (ear infection, fever, teething…in these cases, give him paracetamol or 5 chamomilla granules for his teeth before sleeping) or sleep apnea.
Most of the time, the child’s nightmares are temporary and not serious. But sometimes, they can become a problem and disturb the child and the family’s life. Certain situations can induce a period of nightmares:
– anxiety ;
– emotional shocks
– difficulties at school or in the family
– separation from the mother or parent: entry into the daycare center, daycare, hospitalization, birth of a baby in the family;
– the major acquisitions of the second year: walking, language, cleanliness
– a fright can provoke a nightmare: the child does not find his parent in a store or his mother leaves, and he believes that she disappears, or it is an animal, a violent noise, an argument with a friend… ;
– jealousy: the birth of a baby, the first games with others: it can develop very great interior violence which disturbs it much and will emerge the night in the form of nightmares;
– around 3 years old, he discovers the reality of death and may be afraid of dying, especially when he falls asleep;
– noisy environment, watching too much TV, or using the computer
– heavy or exciting evening meals;
– staying up late and not getting enough sleep;
– the end of very hectic evenings;
Good to know: after the age of 6, the child enters the latency phase: it is a calmer period when all his questions are calmed down.
Nightmares in children and sleepwalking
This mysterious disorder still remains an enigma.
Agnès Brion, a doctor specializing in sleep disorders at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, analyzes: Sleepwalking raises more questions than it solves and sometimes poses a real problem of loss of control for people who suffer from it.
Indeed, the brain is asleep, and the body is awake. It is, therefore, dangerous to wake up a child who suffers from this disorder because sudden awakening risks putting him in a state of extreme confusion, or even stupor or psychic shock, leading him to behave in a disordered and brutal way, with the risk of running away and falling. The best thing to do is to accompany him silently back to his bed.
Sleepwalking belongs to the non-ordinary states of consciousness, like trance or hypnosis.
It is a state of semi-awakening caused by a sudden break in deep sleep in the first part of the night.
During a well-synchronized doze, a micro-awakening occurs at this precise moment, which is necessary for the passage to another sleep cycle.
During a seizure, the awakening occurs at the motor level while the brain remains in its sleeping state. The next morning, the child does not remember anything but can remember the nightmare.
Certain factors may contribute to sleepwalking episodes
– anything that fragments sleep, such as apnea;
– a poor lifestyle, such as recurrent lack of sleep;
– genetic causes: in the same family, several people can suffer from sleepwalking.
Other sleep disorders during deep sleep
Parasomnias are, like sleepwalking, abnormal behaviors in a sleeping child. They are:
– Somniloquy: talking while sleeping.
– Night terrors: the child does not recognize his parent, cries, and is in a state of great confusion, but night terrors are not nightmares. There are no imaginary reasons that lead the child to this agitation. What is released is the ability to move, to move around, in the middle of sleep.
What to do about nightmares in children?
Children who do not have nightmares around the age of 7 are not normal children; every child has nightmares at least 2 to 3 times a week.
Make sure that your child has a healthy lifestyle:
– that his evening meal is light ;
– that he/she goes to bed early and at regular hours;
– that he/she has been able to take a big bath in the air to relax him/her in a park or a green playground;
– stay away from the TV and computer, which are over-stimulating for his brain.
Good to know: researchers have established a clear link between the time spent on screens, sleep, and children’s performance in terms of language, memory, reactivity, and concentration. Moreover, according to a study, children exposed to screens in the morning before school are three times more likely to suffer from language disorders.
Communication and rituals
The child needs to be reassured. They need their parents to be calm and soothing, to tell them over and over that they are safe because they are there. It would be a mistake to deny the reality of what he has just experienced.
– In the evening, give priority to calm and cuddly moments, quiet and soothing in a warm and caring environment that comforts and reassures your child before bedtime (soft light, fresh air in his room) because he may be afraid to fall asleep and that his nightmares will start again.
– Take the time for a ritual: a bath, a cuddle, a rocking, a connivance. Let the child choose, if he wants, a nightmare story with rocky or slightly worrying dreams but with a happy ending that leaves the child relieved and comforted by his nightmares. The child can then conceptualize his fear and express it in different symbolic ways and often, as a result, the nightmares lessen and disappear.
Talk to the child about his nightmare in simple language, then:
– Let him/her tell about the bad dream. Suggest that he draw it (for example, with a mandala) or play it with him in a symbolic way of the difficulties he is going through …and make him relive it during the day by making him shake with laughter, and no longer with anguish (for example, through a small theater or dolls that tell the disturbing dream).
– Use puppets, stories, and games to help him/her distance himself/herself from his/her emotions (fear, panic, grief, anger, anxiety, fears…).
Good to know: if the nightmares are very violent, it is because they show difficulty to be in peace in daily life. During the day, the child is agitated. Finding out what is making the child unusually tired or what is causing his or her worries is already a way to discuss how to remedy the situation with him or her, and very often, this alone will suffice.
Calling on professionals
Nightmares are usually temporary, but if they continue for a long time or interfere with the child’s life and that of the family, there are resource centers and professionals who can help and support you.
Think of the precious help of sophrology, acupuncture, hypnosis, and relaxation.
– Prepare a lemon balm and hawthorn tea before bedtime to help him relax.
– For the youngest, offer 1 tablespoon of lemon verbena hydrosol in half a glass of water before bedtime to balance the nervous system.
– If he is older, after 7 years, offer him essential oils (EO) with calming effects for the body and mind: lavender (light sedative), or bitter orange (action equivalent to a light sedative). Pour a drop of essential oil on a linen cloth near your pillow.
– In homeopathy, give him 5 granules of stramonium in the evening.
Good to know: these treatments are for your knowledge only. Ask a doctor or a naturopath for advice.