Nightmares – What can be done about them?

30 April 2024
Posted by: Chelsea

A child’s nightmares can be terrifying for them to experience and disturbing, in a different way, for their parents too.

The nature of daycare environments means that this is rarely an issue with children in their care.

Daycare centres

Even in centres where children take naps, this is hardly ever an issue. The relevance of this will be seen below.

Understanding nightmares in children

In one sense, the title of this section is misleading because the causes of nightmares in children are not at all understood.

They’re assumed to be related to stress and changes in a child’s environment, though this explanation is questioned because nightmares are most common in the 3-6 age range where up to 60-75% of children report suffering from them.

However, only about 5% of children describe suffering from them regularly.

As a child ages, the number and frequency of nightmares typically decreases after about 6 years of age until by the age of 10, most children are largely (though not necessarily totally) free of them. By the time children are through puberty and into their teens, the frequency of reported nightmares has dropped to very low levels for most. As we all know, adults continue to experience them from time to time.

The general causal explanations seem unconvincing because while it is established that young children do feel stress, there is no obvious reason why a child of 5 should be more likely to be under nightmare-inducing stress than one of say 7-8.
Essentially, for unclear reasons, nightmares seem entirely normal for younger children.

Known causal factors

Although in general terms the causes are not understood, there are some factors which studies have shown to be related to a general increase in nightmares:

certain medications, including antihistamines;

  • children suffering from very strong separation anxieties or those who have experienced major traumas (PTSD);
  • some medical conditions including a recent fever, problems with the central nervous system of a child and some illnesses that affect intellectual development, are all known to increase a child’s tendency to have nightmares;
  • exposure to adult-level horror and graphical violence in the media or social media.

The above causes though only explain a very small percentage of nightmares.

Night terrors

An entirely separate condition is known as ‘night terrors’.

Nightmares usually arise in the middle of the night or more commonly, just before the normal waking time. They usually (though not always and some children may appear unresponsive for a short time) stop fairly quickly after the child awakens and is given comfort and reassurance. The child can often remember the dream the following day, even if subsequently it is quickly forgotten.

By contrast, night terrors can happen at any time during the night. A child, even if seemingly awake, can take 15-20 minutes to come out of them even if reassurance is available. They may involve terrified hiding under bedclothes or thrashing about. Most children may be entirely unable to recall them the following day.

Once again, the causes of night terrors are not understood.

The sexes

There seem to be few differences between the experiences of males and females here, although some studies suggest girls may tend to start nightmares at a later age than boys, including some starting as late as 13, which may or may not be linked to puberty.

Prevention and cure
There is no guaranteed method of prevention. Some experts recommend denying children under 6 access to the TV or internet within 2 hours of their expected bedtime. All strongly recommend ensuring children do not have access to media showing adult themes of horror or violence.

  • Treatment usually consists of plain reassurance during and immediately after a nightmare.
  • Daycare centres and naps
  • Nightmares and night terrors tend to happen overnight. As such, this problem is very rare in the context of daytime naps.

Medical intervention
You should consult a doctor sooner rather than later if:

  • your child reports very regular nightmares and the frequency is not diminishing over time;
  • other physical symptoms, such as vomiting, headaches or incontinence accompany the nightmares/night terrors;
  • the child is experiencing nightmares/night terrors when they’re fully awake in the daytime;
  • their experiences are clearly having a knock-on effect on their daytime health, such as fatigue through lack of sleep.

Your doctor may recommend some medication or counselling.

For more details, please contact Read2Grow Early Learning Childcare experts!

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