By: Armin Brott
For most adults, occasional nightmares are a normal part of life. But that doesn't stop parents from feeling helpless when their children wake up screaming in the middle of the night. And the more frequently those nightmares happen, the more parents worry.
Before we go on, let me clarify two terms people sometimes use interchangeably: nightmares and night terrors. In reality, they're very different. Nightmares happen during the dream phase of sleep known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement). The child may wake up with a clear memory of a "long movie" that frightened him.
Night terrors, on the other hand, happen during the deeper, non-REM sleep. They usually start an hour or two after the child has gone to bed and can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Technically, the child is asleep the entire time, even though his eyes will be wide open. When it's over, though, he won't remember anything.
Nightmares are fairly common. According to one recent study, between 20 and 39 percent of kids between 5 and 12 have them. Only one to four percent, however, have night terrors. If your child has either one, there's no guaranteed way to completely eliminate them. But there are a lot of things you can do to reduce their frequency.
Monitor television viewing. No scary or violent shows or videos just before bedtime.
Make sure you can always hear your child if he cries out in the night. Get a monitor if you need to. If a baby sitter stays with your child, make sure she knows how to comfort him. Get to your child as quickly as you can.
Take it easy. Really. Your child will be able to tell if you're faking and sensing your tension will upset him even more. Reassure her in a calm, soothing voice, that it's safe to go back to sleep. Stay with her until she's settled down. Reading a story is a great way to ease her back to sleep.
Discuss the nightmare, but only if your child is open to it. If he remembers his dreams in the morning, encourage him to talk about the frightening parts and to make up a happy ending to it. But if he doesn't want to discuss it, respect his wish.
What Not to Do
Don't wake her if she's still asleep and crying out when you go to her room. Stay with her until she wakes up all by herself or goes back to sleep peacefully.
Don't let him sleep with you, especially after a nightmare. You may end up giving him the impression that he should be afraid of his own bed. This could also develop into a difficult-to-break habit.
Don't tell her that nightmares aren't real. They seem plenty real to her and blowing them off as trivial will only upset her more. Instead, assure her that even though nightmares are scary, all of us have them sometimes.
Despite the myths, in most cases nightmares and night terrors are not a reflection of emotional distress. Reassurance and support from you are usually enough to help your child until he outgrows the problem. However, if the nightmares or night terrors affect your child's ability to function during waking hours, or if you suspect that they're causing any health problems, consult his doctor right away.
A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of Father for Life, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, and The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts "Positive Parenting", a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com.