Hosts Alok Patel and Bethany Van Delft offer an understanding of the frightening episodes your child may be experiencing when they go to sleep, so you can help your little one navigate through the night. Nightmares can be brought on by something a child sees during their waking hours, like a book, show, or movie. But they can also be related to trauma or brought on by life changes or a specific event.
Humans evolved to recognize that what they can’t see might hurt them, meaning many children are afraid of the dark. Now that we live in houses, apartments, and other types of shelters, a physical barrier between us and “whatever may be out there” exists. Young children may have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and imaginary, making it challenging for many to grasp that what’s “out there” can’t get in—including that fictitious monster hiding under the bed.
How can you acknowledge that your child has fear and help them get through it? A night light and comforting toys may help, Bethany says. “As you’re helping your child get through something like sleeping in the dark or dealing with nightmares, you want to give them an element of control,” Alok adds.
Unlike nightmares, sleep terrors tend to occur during non-REM sleep. “Night terrors are these frightening reactions where kids can kick, thrash or scream for seemingly no reason,” Alok says. “They may have an elevated heart rate, sweating, or even dilated pupils.” Sleep terrors can be caused by caffeine, stress, new medications, or sleep deprivation. And while there’s no genetic proof that night terrors are hereditary, they tend to run in families.
If your child suffers from nightmares or sleep terrors, it’s worth checking whether something external or internal (i.e., a medication) is causing frequent sleep disturbances. (If your child is excessively tired during the day, you might want to contact their pediatrician.) Ultimately, the easier it is for your little one to catch some Zs, the easier it will be for you, too.
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Kids' Nightmares & Sleep Terrors: When to Worry
Published: February 15, 2021
Bethany Van Delft: Like I put Nico down one night. I was like, “This is great. He is sleeping through the night. Everything is good. Life is back on track.” And in the middle of the night I heard screaming from his room. And I went in the room and Nico was like, “Don’t cut my cake! Don’t cut my cake!” And he’s like, “Don’t cut my cake!” He was asleep! He was completely asleep.
Alok Patel: So here’s the thing about nightmares, They usually happen during REM sleep. That’s rapid eye movements. Usually in the second half of the night when these REM intervals actually get longer. And it’s really interesting because it happens in this phase of sleep where children can actually have nightmares and then wake up and remember them. They may seem vivid. They may have part of the memory, but nonetheless, it feels very real, can be traumatizing and they can have strong emotions afterwards.
Now, we don’t really know exactly what triggers nightmares... could be brought on by something a child sees. A book, a mystery crime show, could be changes in the child’s life. It could also be related to trauma. So anything that’s happening in that little brain could trigger a nightmare.
Bethany, are your kids afraid of the dark?
Bethany Van Delft: They’ve been saying they’re afraid of the dark a little bit lately, but I don’t know if they are afraid of the dark or if they are very interested in ways to get out of bed.
Alok Patel: So it’s not that they’re afraid of the dark, they just love the light.
Bethany Van Delft: They just love not going to bed.
Alok Patel: They have FOMO of what’s happening.
Bethany Van Delft: They have FOMA. They are “Fond Of Mommy Annoying.” That’s what it is. FOMA.
Alok Patel: Can I walk off set? They’re not afraid of the dark, but a lot of kids are.
Darkness does have a little bit of a connotation, you know, in human history. Darkness was often associated with danger and predators lurking in the shadows.
Bethany Van Delft: Like saber tooth tigers.
Alok Patel: Possibly.
Bethany Van Delft: Wooly mammoths. All kinds of scary things.
Alok Patel: I don’t know about wooly mammoths, but like things that were going to hurt us. But young kids don’t always understand the difference between reality and fantasy, so they may actually think there’s a monster under their bed when there really isn’t.
And oftentimes when kids are in that preschool age, they tend to be more imaginative. So more things can actually wind up in that nightmare of theirs. And it’s only around this age or a little bit older when they start to realize that it’s not real. Even though it’s just a dream, that doesn’t change how scary it might feel.
And even though we don’t share that fear because we know the difference between a monster and reality, it’s important you acknowledge that your child has a fear and help them get through it. Do you have any tricks for when your kids might be scared at night, even though you say that sometimes they’re not?
Bethany Van Delft: I don’t think they are, but we got him a little night light that plugs into the wall. It’s like orange-ish yellow. It says it doesn’t disrupt sleep. Lulu doesn’t, she’s never, really needed a comfort toy. But Nico needed it. But it took him a long time. Took him a lot of swiping right to find his match. And now he has Fafa, a little Scottish terrier.
Alok Patel: Scottish terrier protects…
Bethany Van Delft: Protects him. He holds Fafa all the time. He gets up in the middle of the night to go potty and he’s got Fafa under his arm. He goes down the hall and goes potty and comes back with Fafa.
Alok Patel: So I like that because here’s the thing. Fafa represents Nico’s autonomy. So as you’re helping your child get through something like sleeping in the dark or nightmares, you want to give them a little element of control. And that could be Fafa.
Bethany Van Delft: Right. So he’s like, I’m with Fafa. I’m untouchable. And he’s not afraid.
Alok Patel: Or you could give them anti-monster spray, which could just be water. And be like, do you wanna get rid of the monsters in your room and actively participate with them until they learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Bethany Van Delft: So spray monsters spray under the bed?
Alok Patel: It’s giving them something to do in the same way Fafa is protecting Nico from anything else. Because if you constantly go in your child’s room and look under the bed, all it’s going to do is reinforce their fear. We don’t want that to happen.
Bethany Van Delft: We don’t? No. No, we don’t. I just want him to call me when he gets older. Just a phone call.
Alok Patel: Don’t tell him there’s monsters under his bed.
Bethany Van Delft: I mean, if it makes him call when he’s like 25. If nightmare’s like cutting cake and gorillas and burglars, what’s a night terror because that sounds terrifying so what’s a night terror?
Alok Patel: And they actually look terrifying to parents and the way they’re described. Kids can seemingly kick, thrash, or scream for seemingly no reason. They may have an elevated heart rate, sweating. They may even have dilated pupils.
Night terrors tend to occur 2-3 hours after children fall asleep, and parents are often baffled, like what caused this so it’s so scary. It tends to happen during non-REM sleep. Thing is, as we sleep, there’s tons of information running through millions and millions of neurons. And for whatever reason, the fight or flight part of the nervous system gets turned on, causing those scary looking behaviors and movements. And they look like they’re awake while they’re still really asleep.
Bethany Van Delft: They remember no part of it.
Alok Patel: Usually don’t. I’ve had parents tell me that they went in the kid’s room and the kid was sitting up and screaming and trying to get out of bed. And then over the course of 20 minutes, they slowly calmed their kid down, woke him up, and he didn’t remember a single thing.
Bethany Van Delft: Oh, wow.
Alok Patel: If they happen infrequently, it’s not a big deal. Sometimes they can be caused by things like caffeine, stress, new medications, or even really bad sleep deprivation. Night terrors tend to happen in children ages 3-12 but can happen as young as 18 months. As kids get older, all these events tend to decrease, and that’s because the amount of time we spend in the stage of sleep where night terrors occur decreases.
Now, night terrors tend to run in families. So because of this, some people think there’s a genetic component to them. Although this hasn’t been proven yet.
But as always, with night terrors, nightmares or even difficulty sleeping, you want to make sure there’s nothing else underlying that could be the cause. Like medical things, external environment, other medical conditions, stress, anxiety, trauma. Is there something bothering your child at school? Anything like this. And if your child seems like they’re excessively tired during the day, that’s a sign that their sleep is truly being disrupted. And in that case, you do want to check with your doctor.
But even giving kids this kind of protective environment, easing them into sleep can take away some of the anxiety if they have it, and help promote restful sleep, which we know is great for them and amazing for parents.
Bethany Van Delft: In the dream, I was in my bed and I was looking out the window, and it was daytime. And I grew up in the Bronx, so the big high-rise apartment building across the street, I’m looking at it, and a giant, giant gorilla as tall as the building walked up to the building kind of like this. And was just picking people out of windows and munching on them like sunflower seeds. So I scream and go, “Nooooo.” And I wake up.
Alok Patel: That nightmare sounds like it’d be a pretty legit movie. What if the gorilla came in, cutting the cake. The gorilla’s like, “Bavarian chocolate!”
Bethany Van Delft: I didn’t get you but I’ll get your son. Cutting the cake, cutting the cake, cutting the cake.
Research and Editing by: Drew Powell
Hosted by: Alok Patel and Bethany Van Delft
Producer/Director: Ari Daniel
Producer/Camera: Emily Zendt
Production Assistance: Diego Arenas, Christina Monnen, Arlo Pérez, Amanda Willis
Senior Digital Editor: Sukee Bennett
Rights Manager: Hannah Gotwals
Business Manager: Elisabeth Frele
Managing Producer: Kristine Allington
Coordinating Producer: Elizabeth Benjes
Director of Audience Development: Dante Graves
Director of Public Relations: Jennifer Welsh
Legal and Business Affairs: Susan Rosen and Eric Brass
Director, Business Operations and Finance: Laurie Cahalane
Executive Producers: Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt
Scientific Consultants: Umakanth Katwa, MD Eliot Katz, MD Roberta Leu, MD
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