Counsellor, teacher and sleep specialist Kenna Zachinsky takes a look at potential causes of sleep regression or disruption.
Almost every parent experiences the challenge of getting their child to wind down for bedtime. Most parents have also jumped out of bed at least once in their life and ran into their kid’s bedroom because the child began screaming, seemingly out of nowhere! Why does this happen?
The most straight forward explanation could be a physical discomfort: Is their room too hot, cold, stuffy, bright or noisy? Are their pyjamas too tight? Have they wet the bed? But, unfortunately, night terrors and nightmares are also very common.
EMOTIONAL SLEEP DISRUPTION
More common in children over two years old, night terrors usually occur because of emotional overstrain: too much screen time, a busy day, excitement, travel, or a change in routine or environment.
Night terrors occur shortly after falling asleep, usually in the first half of the night, when children are partially aroused from a deep sleep. The child, at this moment, is in an unconscious state and does not respond to words and touch. The best thing you can do is to gently keep them out of harm’s way until the night terror passes (it could be 10-20 minutes) and keep the environment safe. The child will eventually go back to sleep. Parents often say that the more they try to wake their child, the longer the episode lasts.
Throughout the night terror, your child’s brain remains asleep, whereas your little one looks somehow awake, and facial expressions are very emotional. Your child may scream and appear frightened, usually not recognising the parents or carers. It will be challenging to reassure your child, and they may try to run away or push away those trying to console them. Thankfully, children don’t remember about it in the morning (but parents certainly do!). Night terrors are usually outgrown by the end of primary school age.
KEEP IN MIND: Fevers can make night terrors worse, so try and keep a fever down when your child is sick. If your child’s night terrors continue, make an appointment with your doctor to ensure it’s not an underlying condition, such as sleep apnoea.
FEAR SLEEP DISRUPTION
Nightmares or bad dreams can cause children to wake up feeling scared and upset. It’s typical for children to have nightmares about:
- real danger like dogs, sharks or spiders
- fictional characters, such as monsters
- distressing events they’ve seen or experienced
Children can sometimes tell you about their bad dreams in detail, depending on their language ability. Nightmares tend to happen in the second half of the night when children sleep lightly. Some younger children might find it hard to get back to sleep after a nightmare. It’s common in children of all ages, but they’re prevalent when children are around 10 years old. If your child wakes up because they have had a nightmare, explain that it was a bad dream. Reassure them that everything is fine and that they’re safe.
- Listen to your child’s worries: Don’t dismiss them (nightmares are very real to children). Calmly talking together about the bad dream can reduce its emotional power. But if your child has forgotten about a nightmare, it’s probably best not to raise it.
- If your child has dreamed about monsters: Explain that monsters are only make-believe but you understand how the thought scares them.
KEEP IN MIND: Children with a vivid imagination might have nightmares more often than other children. Traumatic events can also cause nightmares, and it may cause children to experience nightmares for several weeks or months afterwards.
Reduce bedtime anxiety
Establishing a relaxing and enjoyable bedtime routine (dinner, bath, story or quiet play time) can help reduce anxiety before bedtime. News, movies or scary books can easily spook a child. Put a night light in your child’s room, or leave the door open to let some light from another room in. Try to see things from their perspective – is there a picture or toy that may cast a shadow or look creepy in the half-light? Make sure your child moves a lot during the day. Don’t make a big deal about your child’s fear in front of them, but do take their fear seriously. Reinforce and praise positive behaviour by helping your child to make little steps toward overcoming their fear.