Some babies sleep during the night pretty early on, some don’t. Some learn to sleep through, some don’t. Some are great sleepers and some are not. We have a great section on routines and helping very little ones get off to sleep however this article is more about slightly older children (3yrs or so upwards) who are having disturbed nights all of a sudden when previously they were sleeping well.
Nightmares are common in children from a very young age and up through teenage years. When children sleep they process what they have seen, heard and experienced throughout the day. If something has confused them or if they are over-tired nightmares can occur. Sometimes they happen frequently, other times they may be one-offs which are a reaction to a certain event i.e. seeing something scary on TV or during Halloween. Children all process things different so while we might find the idea of a certain famous cartoon pig non-threatening, they might decide that on one particular day something they saw upset them. Younger children especially aren’t known for logical thinking all the time.
Nightmares can also be a sign of being worried or stressed, particularly in older children and teens. Knowing this will help you spot when this is happening (although not all nightmares are caused by worry) and may give you the opening to discuss with your child what is going on.
If you’ve ever seen a child having a night terror you will know that they are not at all pleasant. They are however quite common and fairly easy to manage. The NHS has some excellent advice on what night terrors are and how to deal with them, including breaking the cycle, here.
To break it down for you:
- What Does a Night Terror Look Like
If you child is having a night terror they will likely scream or shout, maybe thrash around, jump about and throw their arms around. They might have their eyes wide open but not really be able to see you.
It sounds horrible and it can be a little upsetting (for you) the first time however night terror episodes rarely last very long.
- What Causes a Night Terror?
Triggers for night terrors can be a simple as something that pulls them out of a deep sleep, i.e. needing the toilet, being worried etc. They can also occur during illness when the child is likely to experience deeper sleep than normal, especially if on medication.
- Dealing with a Night Terror
There’s actually very little you can do when your child is having a night terror other than wait it out and make sure they don’t hurt themselves. As they are unlikely to recognise that you are there, holding them / cuddling them with likely make them more upset.
- The Good News
Children don’t remember having had a night terror and they aren’t damaging (provided the child is kept physically safe). Do talk to your GP though if night terrors occur and are prolonged, there may be something physical causing them, such as tonsillitis or similar. There may also be something worrying your child as this can be a trigger too.
A Parent’s View:
My daughter started with night terrors when she was four and the first time frightened the life out of me. She had her eyes wide open, was shouting and would get distressed if I tried to touch her. They soon ended (after a few weeks) and thankfully she never had more than one a night. I mentioned it to our GP at the time who said that children are little sponges, soaking up so many sights, sounds and experiences during the day, on top of their schoolwork and that they process a lot of that during deep sleep and that in his opinion this contributed to night terrors. It certainly put my mind at rest and sure enough, she was fine with no memory of them having happened and no ill-effects.
Top Tips for Easing Children Back to Sleep
Fill a spray bottle with water. You can add a little lavender oil or similar if you like. Spray this under beds, behind doors and around the bedroom to ward off bad dreams and anything scary. This can be really effective against scary things which cause disturbed nights.
Audio Books / Music
Sometimes disturbed nights can become an ongoing issue as opposed to a few nights once in a while. Some children simply don’t settle well. One Dream Bear Mum has offered this advice.
My eldest son went through a stage of going to sleep fine then waking up a few hours later and being wide awake. He was about four and a half at the time and while he wasn’t upset so hadn’t had a bad dream he didn’t feel sleepy. Two hours after going to sleep is not an ideal time for children to be awake and I tried all the usual steps with some success but nothing worked as well as this. We put a CD player in his room and very quietly played Thomas the Tank Engine audio books on repeat. He would lie still and quiet so that he could hear it and would soon fall asleep with a smile on his face. After a few days, he asked for his audio books to go to bed with after his proper story from me and he slept and didn’t wake up.
This wasn’t something I planned on using long term and so didn’t. After a month of falling to sleep listening to Thomas stories or Jolly Phonics tunes quietly he got bored of it and so didn’t ask and I didn’t offer. It was a phase and this was a temporary solution but it helped him (and me) get a good night and start the next day fresh.
Sleeping with the main light on is not ideal as children need darkness to enjoy a proper sleep (melatonin, a hormone is released into the body when you are in the dark and this promotes great sleep). You might find that children become afraid of the dark for periods, especially after having had a nightmare. You could leave the big light on until they fall asleep then switch it off later however you might find yourself doing this several times a night, particularly if they are unsettled and keep waking up.
A happy compromise is a night light. These come in all shapes and sizes. Some plug in whereas others feature a charge feature which charges via a power point then is cool and safe to use and for children to hold and even have in bed.
Whatever works when it comes to disturbed nights gets a thumbs up from us!
Check under the Bed
There’s something under my bed, there’s a monster in my cupboard or something behind my curtains. These are all common worries for little ones, particularly if they’ve already been upset by a nightmare or are overtired. Telling them not to be silly is rarely helpful. Instead, grab a torch and do a quick but thorough check of the room. Ask them to hold the torch while you do it so they can see nothing is wrong. This can be a simple way to banish worries along with disturbed nights.
Build a Dream-Catcher
Often all that a child needs is some reassurance. Making a dream catcher can be a fun and affordable craft session at home and when you hang it in your child’s room you can explain what a dream catcher is and how they work. This idea of something being there to stop the bad dreams can be enough to soothe your child.
Older children are usually ok once they’ve had a little reassurance if they’ve had a nightmare or found a way to settle back down. An easy to reach bedside lamp that lets them read a few pages of a book or similar can be a great way for them to settle themselves. Lamps that turn off after a while are even better if you don’t want your child sleeping next to a blazing light all night (this isn’t advised).
Disturbed nights are part and parcel of being a parent. When you are a single parent it can be doubly hard as you might not have someone else there to take on the night duty to give you a break. Thankfully these phases tend to be just that, temporary blips. No-one knows your child like you do so be inventive if needs be and help them get past their worries, their nightmares, their inability to settle properly or their night terrors as best you can. Do try and carve out some extra time for you when you have a chance to have a cat nap or just an extra couple of sit down sessions as being woken up at night can often be more tiring for us parents than the child!
If disturbed nights are persistent and you are concerned that something is worrying your child or that they are unwell speak to your health visitor or GP.