Bad dreams and nighttime screams

With Halloween around the corner this month, horror movies are filling our theaters and TV guides. If your child has bad dreams, avoid these films and pay attention to what your child watches on TV.

Nightmares occur at all ages, but the peak ages are between 3 and 6 years old, when most children’s imaginations blossom. The content of these dreams varies across the age groups. Younger children may dream about separation from parents, shots at the doctor’s office or scary monsters. Older children may have nightmares about stories they’ve seen in the movies or on TV.

Telling the difference between nightmares and sleep terrors can be difficult because they both can happen in early childhood and the child may appear frightened and scream under both conditions. But during sleep terrors, the child doesn’t appear to be awake, and trying to console the child worsens the situation. Children can recall details about a bad dream but have no memory of a sleep terror. Therefore, sleep terrors often are more distressing to the parent or caregiver than the child.

So, what is a parent to do?

Nightmares and sleep terrors increase with sleep deprivation, so a regular sleep schedule, good sleep habits (no TV, computer or video games or caffeine before bedtime) and a quiet sleep environment are helpful. Avoiding frightening movies. Parental reassurance and security objects may help with nightmares. If your child seems to fight or avoid your attempts to comfort, he or she may be having a sleep terror. The best thing to do is to make sure your child is safe but avoid contact. Interfering with the sleep terror may increase your child’s agitation and prolong the episode. Don’t worry, sleep terrors usually disappear by adolescence. But nightmares can persist into adulthood, so choose your movies wisely this Halloween season.

Louella Amos, MD- Louella Amos, MD, pediatric sleep specialist, Sleep Center, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin 

The Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is the only sleep center in the state dedicated solely to the care of children and teens. The center has two locations (Milwaukee and New Berlin) both accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and staffed by four board-certified pediatric sleep specialists.

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