But sometimes, all that imagery can be too much for young children, says Phoenix sleep expert, Lauri Leadley, RPSGT, RCP, of Valley Sleep Center, causing disruption of sleep, nightmares, and night terrors.
Leadly offers some tips on how to cope with late night sleep difficulties.
First…what’s a nightmare?
Nightmares are dreams with vivid and disturbing content, says Leadly.They are common in children during REM sleep or the final phase of sleep just before the child wakes up. The dream may contain situations of danger, discomfort, psychological or physical terror. They usually involve an immediate awakening and good recall of the dream.
What’s a night/sleep terror?
Night or sleep terrors are often described as extreme nightmares. Children experiencing night terrors may wake up from a deep sleep screaming and sweating. They may experience confusion, and a rapid heart rate.
Most people have no memory of the night terror on awakening the next day other than a vague sense of something extremely frightening. Many report seeing spiders, snakes, animals or people in the room with them.
Leadly’s tips for parents:
1. Wake them up gently! Contrary to popular belief, it is not dangerous to wake a person who is sleepwalking. The sleepwalker simply may be confused or disoriented for a short time upon awakening. Sleepwalking can be dangerous because the person is unaware of his or her surroundings and can bump into objects or fall down or walk out the door.
2. Avoid scary stories, movies, or other stimulus just before bed. Our brains have a tendency to recall the last thing on our mind before we go to sleep, called the “recency effect,” so make sure that the last things that your child experiences or sees before going to sleep are pleasant, happy, and relaxing.
3. Some scary things should be avoided all together. Haunted houses, while fun for adults, can be terrifying for children who do not have a grasp on what’s real and what’s not. Even teens and young adults admit to experiencing nightmares after visiting haunted houses. Make sure that if you participate in a haunted house experience that it is age appropriate for your child.
4. Make sure they are sleeping in a safe environment: If your child sleeps in a bunk bed, put the child who experiences the nightmares in the bottom bunk. Even if there are rails in the top bunk, a nightmare sufferer can try to climb down in their sleep and fall down and get hurt.
5. Establish a regular sleep schedule for your child and make sure they are getting enough sleep. This will also help your child to perform better in school or daytime activities.
6. Use a nightlight, but not too bright. Bright light can actually interrupt sleep patterns and contribute to nightmares. Use a light that has very low lighting, and place it in an area of the room that provides the lowest possible lighting.
7. And avoid eating heavy meals or strenuous exercise just before bed, which can contribute to nightmares. If your child must have something to eat before bed, make it light.
8. After your child has a nightmare, have them explain it to you. Then walk them through it and help them understand that it’s not real. Also, help them come up with a happy or funny alternative. For example, “Every time you see the monster in your dreams, imagine that he has the hiccups.”
Nightmares are fairly common in children, so a parent shouldn’t necessarily be alarmed. But if your child experiences nightmares on a regular basis, or has trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor.