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How to deal with your child's bad dreams and night terrors

Parenting By John Muturi

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  • A child’s dreams are probably influenced a great deal by her personality.
  • Aggressive children tend to have far more hostility in their dreams than the gentle youngsters. Neurotic children have unhappy, worrying dreams.

Children who have been separated from their mother for a month or so are more likely to have nightmares. Unpleasant dreams tend to increase when a child is in poor health, with vivid nightmares about death, illness and other gloomy topics.

An extreme form of the problem is the ‘night terror’ that affects children ages 3-12.

The trapped child

If you find your child crouched on her bed, rigid with fear, or rushing about in frenzy, screaming and crying, her eyes wide open and staring with dilated pupils, then she is suffering a night terror. An episode usually begins approximately 90 minutes after the child falls asleep. The child sits up in bed and screams, appearing awake but is confused, disoriented, and unresponsive. Although the child seems to be awake, she doesn’t seem to be aware of the parents’ presence and usually does not talk. She may thrash around in bed and does not respond to your comforting and reassurance.

Most episodes last 1-2 minutes, but they may last up to 30 minutes before the child relaxes and returns to normal sleep. In the morning she remembers nothing about it. Night terrors often indicate that the child is going through a period of insecurity or reacting to shock. Other causes include stressful life events, fever, sleep-deprivation, medications affecting the central nervous system or recent anaesthesia during surgery. If there is no obvious reason and night terrors persist, seek medical attention.

What to do if your child has a night terror

The child can’t really be calmed down, and if you try to hold her it may make her wilder. So, simply sit with her until she has calmed down. Just speak calmly, put yourself between her and anything dangerous and wait for the storm to pass. Don’t try to wake her up or to talk about the dream or the anxieties that lie behind it. Next day encourage her to talk about it when she is feeling secure and happy with her toys around her in full daylight. Since she might sleepwalk or tumble out of bed in the grip of a night terror, pick up any toys or objects on the floor that she could trip on and make sure windows and outside doors are locked.

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Can night terrors be treated?

Sadly, no adequate treatment exists for night terrors and management mainly consists of educating family members about the disorder and reassuring them that the episodes are not harmful. In severe cases where daily activities, for example, school performance are affected, some antidepressants may be used as a temporary treatment.

Can night terrors be prevented?

You can try to interrupt her sleep in order to prevent an episode by first noting how many minutes the night terror occurs from your child’s bedtime. Then wake her up 15 minutes before the expected night terror, and keep her awake and out of bed for five minutes. You may want to take her to the bathroom to urinate. Continue with the routine for a week.

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