Night Terrors and Nightmares in Children

Night Terrors can be a very emotional event for parents, especially if they become more common.
The good news is that there are things that will help, and most children “grow out of it” eventually. The average age for Night Terrors is from 3 to 12 years, although some start sooner and finish later.
Nightmares can happen at any age, often recurring in children at a particular age.

Difference between night terrors and nightmares

Children can have both, which makes things confusing, however, dealing with nightmares may be similar to the guidelines below for night terrors.

Night Terrors

Night terrors frighten the parents, and the children have little or no recollection in the morning. During the event, they are still in a very deep stage of sleep. Children appear to be awake, but are in fact still in deep sleep as they scream or run around violently. They may not recognise their parents and usually refuse any offer of help.
Because the child is so active and seems awake but distressed, parents attempt to calm the child, but as the child does not hear the parents because of the deep sleep, they usually do not respond.
Any calming attempts fail, and trying to awaken the child may cause even more stress.
Night Terrors may last from a minute to an hour, and if they wake up during the event, they are often confused, and have no memory of the Terror.
The best approach seems to be to carefully restrain them, ensure their safety where they sleep, allowing an eventual return to natural sleep.

Nightmares

Nightmares (scary dreams) can and do frighten children.
Often they remember their nightmares, which happen during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep rather than Deep Sleep. During REM sleep, the child may more readily awaken during a nightmare.
This is the time for reassurance, and the child will respond to a hug and soft words.

What causes Night Terrors?

Night terrors can be caused by many things, including:

  • Junk food
  • Processed food.
  • Dairy or Grain-based foods.
  • Vitamin B group and or Niacin deficiency.
  • Bad sleep quality
  • Sleep patterns out of routine
  • Sleep deprivation – bed time too late.
  • Too hot or cold in bed
  • Noisy sleep environment
  • Stressful events – perhaps starting a new school, new teacher, new baby-sitter, bullying, etc
  • Listening to parents arguing
  • Watching violent TV (even the News)
  • Playing violent video games
  • Medication, especially antihistamines, decongestants, over-the-counter and prescription medication
  • Vaccinations
  • Genetics – children of Night-Terror parents are more likely to suffer.
  • Fever
  • Central nervous system problems or immaturity

What causes Nightmares?

Somewhat similar to night terrors.

Remedies for both conditions

Calm the child before bed. Read a story (not Ghostbusters or Friday 13th!)
A heavy blanket has a “hugging” effect which improves the sense of security. In warm weather, a light blanket with weights sewn into the corners may be helpful.
Discourage TV for an hour before bed.
Try to maintain a consistent routine and bed time each night.
Make bed time early, as children and adults tend to wake up when the sun comes up, so late bed time means less sleep.
Avoid junk food, improve nutrition
Avoid all processed food, especially those with a chemical number in the ingredients list.
Avoid all grain foods, especially wheat or wheat flour, as gluten sensitivity may be a problem. Even if the doctor says the child does not have coeliac disease, they may still have gluten sensitivity and/or Leaky Gut Syndrome.
Avoid dairy products as lactose or casein intolerance may be a problem.
Get the child to place all worries into an imaginary (or real) garbage bag, tie it up and place it in the bin (real or imagined).
Place a “Dream Catcher” over the bed – generally a wire loop decorated with string, beads, etc with “magic dream-catching” properties. The child may feel better if something in the room is their friend.
Lavender or other calming oils – a few drops on or under the pillow, or a sprig of real lavender.
Snack before bed – this may help children who have unstable blood sugar during the night (usually caused by a bad diet with too much sugar).
St.John’s Wort is a natural antidepressant (children’s dose only). Not to be used with any prescription medication as many meds use the same pathway in the body.
B Complex vitamins may help, also Niacin (Prolonged Release) if there is a deficiency.
GABA supplements may help.
Vitamin D3 supplements may help, especially if the child does not get adequate direct sunshine in the middle of the day. This is a high dose, so once or twice a week is normally enough as this is a fat-soluble vitamin, not easily flushed away like the water-soluble vitamins.
White noise – such as recording of ocean waves gently rolling onto the beach can have a calming effect. Even subtle noise from running a fan or ioniser may help.
Classical music softly played during the night may help.