Just a Bad Dream
Nightmares have some important distinctions from night terrors. For starters, they usually happen later at night, during the second half of sleep. "They're a phenomenon of REM, or rapid-eye-movement, sleep, the period when we're dreaming," Dr. Cohen says. And, he adds, their causes are less elusive: "They stem from life events that a child finds frightening or difficult." These experiences may be as seemingly minor as encountering a dragonfly or as major as the death of a loved one.
Nightmares are also easier to handle than night terrors. "Parents should wake their children," Dr. Cohen advises -- doing so ends the nightmare at once. To minimize recurrence, cut out fairy tales and games involving scary make-believe in the evening, Dr. Mindell recommends. If your child still has a nightmare, hold and stroke her once she's awake. Encourage her to describe the dream if she's already somewhat verbal (a simple word like "spider!" speaks volumes), and reassure her that she's perfectly safe. Sometimes it helps to pick up your child and walk with her and to offer her a glass of water or warm milk. But be careful about allowing her to sleep in your bed with you; she may conclude that there really is something to fear or develop it as a habit.
If your family is coping with a traumatic event such as a divorce, head off related nightmares by comforting your child before bedtime. Address anything else your child has expressed apprehension about too. For imaginary fears (of ghosts, for instance), explain that the dreaded thing is "just pretend." If the anxiety centers on something real, such as a dog, make the object more familiar -- say, by reading a book that's filled with friendly dog pictures. Dr. Mindell suggests filling a clean spray bottle with water and spritzing frightening places (like under your child's bed) with this homemade "monster repellent."
Finally, be on the alert for recurring nightmares. "They may be the first indication that something in a kid's life is upsetting him," Dr. Mindell says. Though the problem could be something major, like school-yard bullying, it's far more likely to be minor -- such as a fear of the big noise that the dishwasher makes.
Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the September 2001 issue of Parents magazine.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.