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All children will experience a nightmare at some point in their lives. Here is some important information that parents should know about a child’s nightmares:

What Are Nightmares?

Nightmares are essentially bad dreams that occur during REM sleep, as a child’s brain is busy consolidating information for the day and merging it with past experiences. Nightmares may or may not be remembered the next day.

The difference between nightmares and night terrors

Nightmares take place during REM sleep and generally occur in the early morning hours, whereas night terrors usually occur shortly after a child has fallen asleep. Nightmares may be remembered by a child, whereas night terrors will not. Nightmares resemble more of a bad dream, whereas night terrors are more like a type of terrified sleepwalking – the child can appear awake but isn’t.

How common are nightmares in children?

Approximately 1 in every 4 kids between the ages of 3 and 8 will experience either recurring night terrors or nightmares as part of their normal development.

What causes nightmares?

Unlike night terrors, nightmares may occur because of stress in a child’s life or revolve around a specific problem or troubling event. The triggers could be everything from hearing parents argue, being scolded by a teacher, or experiencing a traumatic event such as a car accident or violence. Nightmares could also be triggered by child abuse, but the traumas parents frequently ignore (divorce, verbal abuse, bullying, parental conflict) are just as damaging as the other types and far more common than the overhyped issues such as sexual abuse, which is typically non-aggressive and more likely to leave a child curious or confused than disturbed.

Of course, it’s also possible for children to experience nightmares as a normal part of development. Furthermore, seeing something scary on television can trigger a nightmare just as easily as a real-life experience. Nor is the content of a nightmare an accurate reflection of reality. Though nightmares can be triggered by real-life experiences, they also occur during dream sleep, and like dreams their content can be a mish-mash of many different experiences or the collective product of random firings of neurons in a child’s mind. For example, a child running through the memories of a teacher scolding him while recalling a television scene of a man chasing a boy with a gun may have a bad dream that his teacher wants to hurt him and is chasing him with a gun. So don’t read too much into a nightmare’s content. It may or may not be anything that resembles reality.

When the cause of nightmares is disordered breathing during sleep

Nightmares could also be the result of other sleep disorders. Sleep researcher Dr. Barry Krakow is convinced that most bad dreams could be explained by a simple problem: Difficulty breathing. Patients with chronic nightmares may have trouble getting enough oxygen to their brains during sleep. When this happens, the hippocampus (a memory center of the brain), which is being starved of oxygen, starts creating scary associations designed to cause the mind to awaken, i.e., nightmares.

Therefore treating sleep breathing disorders such as sleep apnea may also eliminate nightmares. (Cloud, 2012)

The problems caused by nightmares & the effects they can have on a child

Unlike night terrors, children who experience nightmares often recall vivid details of the scary dream, which may make it difficult to go back to sleep. Therefore nightmares can interfere with the quality of a child’s sleep and create all the problems that come with poor sleep.

Unfortunately, nightmares are also more likely to increase anxiety in waking life, setting off a vicious cycle. (Joelving, 2010) When you or your child struggle with vivid and memorable nightmares, this anxiety is likely to carry over to waking life; and more anxiety while awake could in turn exasperate the problem with nightmares.


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