We all know that feeling - waking up to the sound of tears and wanting to cry yourself. While nightmares and night terrors in children may disturb parents' sleep, they are also something you don’t want your child to experience.
Babies can’t communicate with us directly, which is why it makes the topic of nightmares so difficult, as they can’t tell us what’s going on.
Most people aren’t exposing their children to horror films or YouTube scare videos, so it’s quite unlikely that your baby is having bad dreams related to something they’ve been exposed to. So what is causing your child's nightmares? It’s hard to tell, however, there’s nothing to be worried about. Nightmares are a normal part of REM sleep, in babies and adults alike. It is a way for the brain to process any daily stress they may be experiencing.
The topic of nightmares in babies is a hard one because there is no way to get information on what babies are seeing or feeling during these nightmares. While we may never know what exactly happens in our children’s nightmares, we do know the best ways to manage them and how to help them happen less frequently.
Nightmares vs. Night Terrors
One important thing to note is the HUGE difference between nightmares and night terrors. If your child was having a nightmare, they would potentially be crying and shaking in bed, but will respond well to you when you go to soothe them. They will also calm down shortly after waking. With a night terror, children will sometimes fight off their parents and try to flee the crib/bed.
Night terrors are more likely to occur earlier in the evening when children are shifting from lighter to deeper sleep stages. They happen because the body is trying to wake up - while the brain is trying to shut down for deeper sleep. With night terrors, even though your child may seem awake they are not conscious and will be okay, and further, they will not remember the night terror. Nightmares happen in the wee morning hours and will also wake your child up. The frustrating part is that it is usually difficult to get a fussy child back to sleep so early in the morning.
What to do during a nightmare
Nightmares usually begin when your child is about 3 years of age, but if your child wakes up earlier than that and seems upset - it could mean they are experiencing nightmares. By the age of just 1, children are having multiple dreams per night. What happens when your child is awake can definitely impact their night time rest. Not only do they dream from memory, their activity in the day can make them more or less attentive during dream time. Keeping stress to a minimum and using happy voices with your child during the day can help them out at night.
After a nightmare, your child will usually wake up and this is when they will show distress (not during sleep - that would be a night terror). When you see this happen, you can soothe them back to sleep however you feel is best. First, try to verbally let them know that what they just experienced was not real - it was just a dream, and they are safe. Depending on whether you like to let your child self soothe or not, you can take them out of their crib/bed and soothe from afar. A child will usually calm down quickly when they are being held. Try to not turn lights on or change their sleep environment because this will make it more difficult to fall back to sleep. Once they have calmed down, follow a shortened or regular length version of your usual bedtime routine and put them back to sleep.
What to do during a night terror
Most often, night terrors are nothing to worry about. However, sometimes they could be a symptom of an underlying issue like stress, illness/fever, sleep deprivation, disrupted routines, or sleep-related breathing issues. You should always speak with your doctor if your child is experiencing night terrors.
During a night terror, it’s best to not try to wake your child up. Forcing them awake may make it extremely difficult for them to fall back asleep later. It’s also very hard to wake anyone - not only babies - up from a night terror. Make sure your child is safe, hold them in your arms. You don’t want to risk them hurting themselves. You can also try to calm them down by singing or speaking to them in a soothing voice and reassuring them that everything will be alright.
Night terrors are something parents tend to lose sleep over, as they are stressful especially when there’s no real treatment. Don’t take it too hard on yourself, these night terrors are out of your control and will pass. Remember: your child will probably not remember what happened. They are usually outgrown in adolescence, but if they do get worse, it's important to inform your doctor.
How to Lessen Nightmares & Night Terrors
To help reduce night terrors, we recommend:
1. Following a consistent bedtime routine
Having a consistent bedtime routine is vital in creating healthy sleep habits for your child. Exposing your child to the right things at bedtime can affect their dreams. Following the same routine, every night will not only help your child fall asleep more easily, but it will instill a sense of security around bedtime and can even deter nightmares & night terrors.
Baby Dream Machine is a great tool in helping establish a consistent nighttime routine. It combines 5 sleep-inducing features that can create the perfect sleep environment for your child. Having a source of light on in the room all night can help a child feel secure, but you don’t want too much light to disturb their sleep. The Red Light Therapy in Baby Dream Machine is the perfect addition because it provides some light, but the light is the same hue as a sunset, which actually induces melatonin production in children.
2. Reconsider their bedtime
Putting your child to bed too awake, or too tired, can actually disturb and disrupt their sleep. A consistent and age-appropriate bedtime can work really well in establishing a healthy sleep routine. Every Baby Dream Machine comes with a personalized sleep guide with a recommended bedtime, as well as 30-days of free sleep support from our certified sleep expert.
3. Leave the light on
A nightlight is something that many parents incorporate into their child's sleep environment. This is a great tool to use but you don’t want any lights on that will be bright enough to disturb your child’s sleep, but many children find reassurance knowing that they have a light on while asleep. Baby Dream Machine is equipped with two different night lights, a Red Light Therapy light which we recommend for sleep because it helps assist in natural melatonin production, and a white-light nightlight which is perfect for during your bedtime routine before bed. The lights have multiple brightness levels, and will never be too bright for your child.
4. Keep their environment stress-free
A child’s sleep environment can impact their sleep immensely. Aromatherapy is one of the best ways to give the room a calm atmosphere. Lavender essential oils, and citrus essential oils are both proven to reduce stress and anxiety. Baby Dream Machine uses 100% USDA certified, organic essential oils. Combining aromatherapy into your night-time routine can help keep your child calm and relaxed.
5. Limit pre-bed screentime
We know that screen time is something that can even disturb adults' sleep. Children should not be exposed to any screen time during the hour before bedtime. Screentime emits blue light, which is the opposite of red light and is known to stimulate children’s minds, keeping them awake and disrupting their sleep.
6. Always travel with your routine
Travel is inevitable, it happens, and can really throw your child off of their regular routine. Some parents notice that nightmares and terrors happen more frequently during or around travel. This is likely because routines are being disturbed. Always make sure your child’s bedtime routine is travel-friendly, so they can be consistent with their routine even while away from home. You can easily travel with your Baby Dream Machine and set it up wherever you go, ensuring that your child will always have what they need to sleep.