We’ve all felt the grips of a really scary dream. Waking with a gasp, face flushed, heart racing, unable to recognize what’s real and what’s not. It’s a completely unnerving feeling and one you may agree you could do without.
It’s unpleasant enough to experience this unconscious terror yourself – it’s a whole other level of helplessness watching your child experience it.
One of the best ways to tackle discomfort is to understand its roots. And so my mission here is to:
- detail the nocturnal events that send your child into a fearful tizzy
- explain the difference between the most common types of what we call “parasomnias” – night terrors and nightmares
- outfit you with some tools that may help ease you and your child through these distressing events
So let’s explore what’s going on here.
What can a sleep consultant do to help?
First, a piece of reassurance. These sleep disruptions are common and, in most cases, are completely harmless. Meaning, from a healthy sleep standpoint, they do not have to be high on your radar. But that doesn’t make them any less disruptive.
Remember that during these events, your child is, in fact, still sleeping. They will be very difficult to impossible to wake and may resist your efforts to reassure. These events can last anywhere from just a few to 30 minutes (and sometimes longer). As long as your child remains in a safe environment, there is no reason to be concerned about long term effects.
In other words, you are doing everything you can do by just being with your child. Do not try to restrain or prohibit their agitation. Staying with them while they fall back to sleep will provide additional security. Ensuring that your child is getting as much daytime sleep as is needed (based on their age) and an early bedtime can help curtail any sleep further sleep disruptions. A few extra long naps may be in store, particularly during periods of change (i.e., potty training, starting school, introducing a new sibling, travel etc.).
If episodes persist, a sleep consultation can help establish additional techniques such as:
- anticipatory waking
- body relaxation strategies
- rescripting and desensitization
- redirecting focus and enhancing attachment and security
The biggest take home from all of this information is that these episodes are common in young children, and though completely distressing to witness, they are NOT usually harmful to your child. Sleep quality is impacted very little, if at all, and in many cases, children simply grow out of these stages. Helping create a highly sleep-promoting environment, calming the body and the mind, and prioritizing healthy, age-appropriate sleep are some of the best tools to minimize these nocturnal disruptions. In the moment, being with your child and comforting them in any way that you know how, but without expectation of a particular response can help to ease your own anxiety surrounding parasomnia episodes.
The content on this website is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.
MIMC understands that sleep is both a biological need AND a learned behaviour. These driving forces must align for your baby to transition happily & confidently into sleep. Founder of MIMC, Denise Gassner, turned her attention to sleep after having her own babies & becoming fascinated & perplexed by how unnatural sleep can feel early on. She’s driven to make sleep less of a mystery for new parents & empower them to make informed decisions on sleep practices that adhere to their unique parenting styles and family values.