Dealing with your child’s nightmares or sleepwalking

There’s nothing better than a good night’s rest. When your child struggles with nightmares or sleepwalking though, it can be tough for anyone in the family to get the sleep they need. Sleepwalking refers to children getting out of bed and moving about the house at night while still asleep enough that they don’t remember the incident in the morning. Nightmares refer to scary or unpleasant dreams that leave a child feeling frightened or upset.

Sleepwalking impacts about 15% of children while nearly all kids have nightmares from time to time. If your kiddo is struggling with peaceful sleep and you’re both ready to get more rest, read on to find out what to do. 

Sleepwalking

If your kiddo gets out of bed at night, moves around the house in a seemingly semi-conscious state, and doesn’t remember the next day, they’re probably sleepwalking. Sleepwalking is more common for boys than it is for girls and is often associated with bed-wetting. The most common triggers for sleepwalking include:

  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Stressful changes within the family or home
  • Medications
  • Having a full bladder
  • Sleeping in a new or noisy environment

In the short term, you’ll want to keep your sleepwalker safe until you can curb the behavior. Make sure your child can get in and out of bed safely (no bunk beds for now), and that you secure your doors and windows so that your sleepwalker cannot get outside. If you hear your sleepwalker up and moving around, quietly and calmly guide them back to bed. Don’t try to wake them up as doing so can cause a lot of fear and upset. 

In the longer term, you’ll want to figure out what is causing the sleepwalking episodes. Make sure that your child is getting an appropriate amount of sleep for their age and, if stressful changes are happening in their life, have them work with a therapist to feel more settled and secure. Reminding them to use the bathroom before bed and making sure their sleep environment is quiet and calm can also help. 

Nightmares

Nightmares, not to be confused with night terrors, are common throughout childhood and most kids experience them at one point or another. Night terrors involve kids screaming, talking, moaning, and appearing anxious or scared as they sleep. They don’t remember night terrors in the morning and should not be woken in the middle of one. Nightmares are generally much milder and often wake kids up as they feel scared and desire comfort from their parents or caregivers. 

When your child wakes from a nightmare and calls for you or comes to your room, it’s helpful to calmly and gently reassure them that they are safe. You can let them sleep in bed with you, on a cot or mattress in your room but not in your bed, or walk them back to their room and lay with them for a few minutes until they feel better and can go back to sleep. 

To prevent nightmares, you can avoid allowing your child to watch or engage with scary or anxiety-inducing media within a couple of hours of bedtime or reduce their access to scary media at all times. You can also spend some daytime hours talking with them about their scary dreams and what can help them feel more comfortable and safer at night. 

While most kids have nightmares every now and then, if your child is experiencing nightmares with an increasing frequency, is so scared they have trouble settling back into sleep later, or is having recurring nightmares about the same things, it may be helpful to talk with their pediatrician. Sometimes stressful life events, trauma, or other underlying issues can trigger nightmares and your child’s doctor can help you seek the support you need to get your child sleeping better. 

While no sleep disturbance is enjoyable, most do pass with time and a little extra attention. Getting good sleep is important for you and your child so, if things seem unmanageable, even if you know they’ll pass, be sure to ask for help and support to get you through.

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