If for a few nights now your sleep has suddenly been interrupted by the cries of your little treasure, then hang in there! It is a natural and temporary phase that the majority of children go through between the age of 6 months and 5-6 years. These sleep "disorders" are essential to your child's mental and emotional balance. Our advice for understanding and handling your baby's nightmares and night terrors.
Nightmares. Help, monsters are attacking!
Nightmares generally begin at around 3 years and remain frequent up to around the age of 5. They occur at the end of the night, during REM sleep.
Dragons, monsters, ghosts… many frightening creatures that fill your child's night. It is normal at this age: nightmares play out a child's fears. They may have seen a cartoon featuring a nasty dog or read a book about a witch, for such characters to come back and haunt them at night! Through nightmares, children also express their frustrations, sadness and anxiety. It is a natural stage and it constructs thought.
How should I handle it? By comforting your baby of course! Do not dramatize your child's fear but do not ignore it either. Simply explain that monsters do not exist. Reassured, your child will go back to sleep. Discuss the book or cartoon that scared your child with them the next day. Read the book again or watch the cartoon again to help your child overcome their fear.
Night terrors: impressive… but harmless
Night terrors are different from nightmares as they occur early on in the night during non REM sleep, and frequently between the age of four and eight years. Unlike with nightmares, during night terrors children do not wake up. They sit up straight in their bed, eyes wide open and screaming, restless, sweating… but they are still asleep! It is a spectacular sight but there is no use trying to wake children with night terrors, as they will not understand why you are doing it. Such episodes generally only last a few minutes and children often calm down on their own. The next day they don't remember a thing!
A possible cause of night terrors is lack of sleep. These nocturnal crying episodes also enable children to express worry or anxiety about any new events in their life: going back to school, the arrival of a little brother or a little sister etc.
If the night terrors are caused by a lack of sleep you may want to consider putting your child to bed earlier or extending the daytime nap. Make sure that your child does not go to bed too late so as not to disturb their sleep routine. If the night terrors persist, discuss it with your paediatrician who can provide you with advice on the subject.
What can help?
There are a number of things you can do to ensure more peaceful nights.
• Place a night light in the bedroom. This will reassure your child at night.
• Leave the door ajar to let a soft light in from the hallway. That way little one is not completely cut off from the world and is thus reassured!
• The night time routine, a quick room "inspection", a lullaby or story and a big cuddle, may also help make going to bed easier, but don't forget that you must leave your child to fall asleep alone.
• Baby's favourite toy can help frighten any monsters away!
If your child still needs more cuddles for reassurance, you can take him/her into bed with you. However this must only be on the rare occasion for no more than a few minutes at a time. Your baby must then go back to bed in their own room!
Laura, Benjamin's mum
My son often has nightmares. To prevent him from having anymore I invented a nightmare catcher: an old shoe box that I painted lots of different colours and that we put under his bed. He has not woken up in the night since!
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