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REM Sleep | Sweet Dreams | giggle Blogs

REM sleep

September 10, 2010

eliminating night terrors and nightmares

Exactly when we begin to dream is debated in the scientific community, but it is believed that children begin to have nightmares (“bad dreams”) at a greater frequency from ages 3 to 5 years-old. This is likely due to their increasing exposure to scary themes in books, television, social interactions, etc.

We know that dreaming takes place during REM sleep and babies spend the most time in REM sleep as it required for their rapid brain development.  We progressively spend less time in REM sleep as we age (fetuses spend 100% of the time in REM sleep whereas the elderly spend 15%).

When I consult with families of preschoolers the topic of nightmares and night terrors often comes up.  The two are not the same and the response to each is nearly polar opposite.

Nightmares are another word for scary or bad dreams. Nightmares happen during REM sleep. When children are having a nightmare they can be awoken and will usually remember the nightmare the next day.  Often times nightmares are a reflection of a child’s feelings of anxiety or powerlessness in a situation.  They can happen when there is a new change in a child’s life or when they are exposed to scary situations from peers, books or television.

Solution: If you know that your child is experiencing a nightmare, try to gently awaken your child and offer reassurance and comfort.  Stay with your child until they are calm and relaxed.  Help your child imagine a happy ending to their nightmares and/or spend time during the day acting out the scenario with a positive ending.  Let your child be in the role of the scary character so s/he feels more power and control in the situation and will be able to overcome the underlying fear.  In some cases a very dim night light may also help.

Night terrors, on the other hand, tend to be genetic (includes sleep walking/talking, etc) and are often triggered by stress (including sleep-deprivation).  Night terrors occur within an hour or two of going to sleep during deep sleep and can last 5-20 minutes. Children who are experiencing a night terror may appear to be awake (eyes open), but in fact are in a very deep sleep.

Solution: Do not attempt to awaken your child.  It is natural to want to comfort or awaken your child, but this is not helpful.  Stay near your child to ensure that they stay safe.  In the bigger picture, it is imperative that you work to minimize your child’s stress and/or get your child more sleep if they are sleep deprived.  A good place to start is usually with an earlier bedtime.