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Nightmares are scary dreams that awaken a child. Occasional bad dreams are normal at all ages after about 6 months of age. When infants have a nightmare, they cry and scream until someone comes to them. When preschoolers have a nightmare, they usually cry and run into their parents' bedroom. Older children begin to understand what a nightmare is and put themselves back to sleep without waking their parents.
The content of nightmares usually relates to the developmental challenges of growing up: toddlers have nightmares about separation from their parents; preschoolers, about monsters or the dark; and school-age children, about death or real dangers. Frequent nightmares may be caused by violent TV shows or movies.
Everyone has the occasional bad dream because everyone dreams four or five times each night. Some dreams are good, some are bad. Dreams help the mind process complicated events or information. Dream sleep typically happens in the early morning hours, so this is when children are most likely to experience nightmares.
When a child has a nightmare, he or she can tell you what the dream was about and will have memory of the dream. This is different than a night terror, which looks the same, but the child sleeps through the event and has no memory of it.
While nightmares generally don’t need testing, they are events that occur during the dream stage of sleep (Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep) and can be detected on a sleep study if needed. Rarely, other medical problems might need to be ruled out.
If children have recurrent nightmares, sleep specialists at the Children’s Colorado can provide testing and treatment, which includes counseling with our sleep psychologist.
Call your child's physician during office hours if:
To help your child work through recurring nightmares, try following these steps:
The Children’s Colorado Sleep Team is an excellent resource for treating children and adolescents with sleep disorders. Our providers are known internationally for their expertise in sleep research and sleep treatments. Our team is made up of sleep specialists trained in different aspects of sleep treatments, including sleep physicians who specialize in children’s breathing issues and children’s ear-nose-and throat problems, a sleep-specialized psychologist, two sleep-specialized nurse practitioners, a sleep-specialized respiratory therapist and a dedicated sleep nurse.
Our sleep psychologist is specifically trained in helping families and children who suffer from recurring, disruptive nightmares. Using the techniques listed above, as well as other cognitive behavioral strategies, we help children learn to calm their own fears and get the restive sleep they need to support development.
Sleep specialists at Children’s Colorado often coordinate care with other specialists and primary care physicians involved in each family’s treatment. Most importantly, we have very caring staff members who are willing to listen to families and “go the extra mile” to improve your child’s sleep and optimize development.
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