Nightmares and other sleep problems in children
Why is sleep important to your child?
A good night’s sleep helps your child develop, build memories, and learn. Sleep helps your child stay alert and focused at school and during play.
Children who don’t get enough sleep can develop behavior problems and learning difficulties. They may be moody, sad, or angry.
What Kinds of Sleep Problems Can Children Have?
Most sleep problems occur when the child is only partially asleep. Problems can include:
- Talking during sleep: Your child may talk loudly or scream for a few seconds and then go back to sleep. You may not be able to understand what your child is saying. Talking during sleep is more common than sleepwalking, although some children display both behaviors.
- Nightmares: These are very common in preschool and school-age children. Your child may call you for comfort or come to your room after a nightmare. Usually, it is possible to reassure and calm the child.
- Waking up confused: Your child may wake up crying, confused, or dazed. They may not recognize you or they may not be able to calm you down. As happens when talking during sleep, the child may say incoherent words that do not make sense.
- Night terrors: Night terrors are more intense than confused waking or nightmares. They are not very common, but they can be worrisome for parents. Your child may suddenly scream or scream in terror. He or she may shake violently in bed. A night terror can continue for several minutes. Your child may not recognize it and it is not possible to calm him down.
- Sleepwalking: Your child may wander around his room or around the house. Your child may have his eyes open, but he is still asleep. Sleepwalking children can often perform simple tasks, such as walking without tripping over furniture. But they can’t do more complicated things, like preparing and eating a snack. Children can be in danger if they try to get out of the house or climb through a window while sleepwalking.
Children spend more time than adolescents and adults in a deep phase of sleep that occurs early at night. Sleep problems like night terrors often happen during the shift from this phase of sleep to lighter sleep. Nightmares tend to occur later, during the early morning hours when children dream.
It may take time for your child to fall asleep again. Children usually remember a nightmare, but do not remember night terrors, confused awakenings, or sleepwalking.
What can you do to help your child?
Talk during sleep
- Speaking during sleep usually lasts only a few seconds. Then the child quickly falls asleep again.
- If your child is also sleepwalking, take the steps below under “Sleepwalking” to help keep him safe.
- Comfort your child with a hug and soothing words. Remind your child that the nightmare is not real.
- Your child may remember the nightmare and want to talk about it. Tell your child to talk about anything that worries him. Worries and stress can increase your chances of having nightmares and other sleep problems.
- Help your child avoid scary books or movies before going to sleep. Scary stories can cause nightmares in some children.
Night terrors and confusing awakenings
- Most children who have night terrors and confusing awakenings do not want their parents to comfort them. They usually go back to sleep after it has passed and does not remember the situation the next morning. But it can be unsettling to watch a night terror.
- Don’t try to wake your child up. He or she could become even more confused and scared.
- Since night terrors usually occur at the same time each night, your doctor may recommend that you wake your child 15 to 30 minutes before the problem usually occurs. Then let your child go back to sleep. This breaks the cycle of the sleep problem. It could also prevent sleepwalking.
- Do not try to wake your child from sleepwalking. He or she may become confused and upset and have a harder time falling asleep again.
- Bring your child back to bed quietly and gently.
- Make sure all doors and windows are closed so that the child cannot leave the house. Put a safety barrier at the top of the stairs.
- Set an alarm on your child’s door so that it sounds as if he or she leaves the room.
- As with night terrors, you may be able to prevent sleepwalking episodes by waking your child 15 to 30 minutes before sleepwalking usually occurs. Next, encourage your child to go back to sleep.
When should your child see a doctor for sleep problems?
Children outgrow most sleep problems. However, you may want to take your child to the doctor if:
- Your child often has trouble getting up in the morning.
- Your child often seems sleepy and irritable during the day.
- Your child has trouble with schoolwork or behavior.
- You are not sleeping well enough.
- Your child is a sleepwalker and you are concerned about keeping him out of harm’s way.
The doctor can detect health problems that could cause sleep problems. For example, children who are under stress due to problems at home or at school may be more likely to have nightmares.
Your doctor may suggest counseling if your child is under a lot of stress and has frequent nightmares.
Most children do not need medicine. In rare cases, a child may take medicine to help control the phase of sleep in which sleepwalking occurs.