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Nightmares and Night Terrors: Sleep Disorders for Toddlers

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • One of the most common sleep disorders affecting toddlers is nightmares. These can occur due to toddlers’ highly active imaginations combined with the stimulation they receive from various activities throughout the day.
  • If a toddler has a nightmare, parents should gently wake them up, hug them and provide them with the reassurance that they need not be afraid and their parents are always close by.
  • In cases where toddlers experience night terrors, their surroundings should be managed so that they are safe, ensuring that the child cannot fall out of bed. Children experiencing night terrors do not respond to care or reassurance but they will eventually grow out of this disorder.

 

Childhood sleep disorders are common, and can affect children of any age, especially toddlers, with one of the most common issues being nightmares. This is due to toddlers’ active imaginations and high energy levels. As a result, if the child is overstimulated throughout the day – be that in the form of fun, excitement or fear – that stimulus may manifest itself as a nightmare.

Nightmares

The symptoms of a nightmare range from a restless sleep to the child screaming and shouting. The best way to care for a child who has had a nightmare is by gently waking him/her up, giving a tight hug and reassurance that you, as parents or guardians, are with them so they need not be afraid any longer, and calming them down enough to get back to sleep. You may not need to turn on the lights or take the child to wash their face as this could wake them up to a point where it could make getting back to sleep difficult. Some children may clearly remember the nightmare and in such cases, parents may want to try and get the child to tell them about it to become aware of what is making the child anxious, in order to find a suitable solution to the problem.

Night terrors

Night terrors is another sleep disorder that is common among toddlers. The condition’s symptoms cause the child to open their eyes as if in a semi-conscious state, while they may also move their arms and legs around, make loud noises, or start crying. In some cases, the child may sleepwalk, which will make it difficult to wake them up. When they do wake up, they often do not remember what they were dreaming about. Therefore, parents should ensure that their child’s bedroom is a safe place and that the child cannot fall out of bed or walk out of the room. Child who have night terrors are unlikely to respond to care and reassurance at the time it occurs, but usually grow out of it as they grow up.

It is possible to prevent against these disorders occurring by reducing the amount of mood-affecting stimuli that the child experiences during the day as well as making necessary changes in their evening meals. For example, when watching videos on a mobile phone, make sure that they are not violent or scary and – especially when the child is about to go to sleep – make sure that you don’t threaten or deceive them in any way. Instead, try helping them relax before bedtime by telling them a peaceful story, chanting meditatively, or playing some calming music, for instance. For dinner, give them food that is easily digestible so that they do not have bloated stomachs or indigestion at night. Avoid giving them any form of chocolate as it contains caffeine which can affect the child’s quality of sleep throughout the night.

Most children grow out of nightmares and night terrors but talk to the doctor if nightmares of the same theme are repeatedly occurring. There might be some past stressful experiences that needs counselling/ treatment from the doctor.


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Kakanang Jantarapagdee, M.D. Summary: Pediatrics Developmental And Behavioral Pediatrics