Decoding kids' nightmares

An inside look at children's dreams

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It’s early evening at the Lehman* house, and the Toronto family is winding down. Mom Debra checks that six-year-old Donald has her old tank top to sleep with, a comfort item she gave him when he started having the odd scary dream. Meanwhile, Joshua, four, is asking his dad, Allan, if he remembers when they were in India and a monkey licked his face. Allan realizes it must be one of Joshua’s vivid dreams — the family’s never been to India.

Often sweet and sometimes sour, dreams can play a big role in family life. So whether your crew swaps tales at breakfast, or you’ve ever soothed your kid after a 3 a.m. nightmare, here’s everything you need to know about your child’s dreams.

Why kids dream

The purpose of dreams is hotly debated among researchers, but there are two common theories:

To learn Some believe dreams help nudge memories from the area of the brain that stores short-term memories to the long-term archive. For example, a 2010 Harvard Medical School study found that people who learned a task (finding a landmark in a 3-D computer maze) and then took a nap and dreamed about it, performed better when they tried it again, compared to those who didn’t nap or didn’t dream of the maze during their nap. The dreams may be a sign that the brain is working on a problem at different levels.

To deal with life’s emotions Researchers speculate that the brain deals with negative emotions by putting them in a different context — in dreams — which diffuses them. “Children tend to have more bad dreams and nightmares in stressful times in their lives. This suggests that dreams may indeed serve to process the emotions of the day,” says Valérie Simard, a professor of psychology at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, who specializes in parent-child relationships and sleep and dreaming in children.

So who’s right? Maybe both. Research shows that during rapid eye movement (or REM, the period of sleep where most dreams happen), activity spikes in the areas of the brain that regulate both memory and emotion.

*Names changed by request.

What do dreams mean?

Interpreting dreams for both adults and children is definitely not an exact science, and chances are your dream dictionary from the used book sale is just for fun.

Younger kids tend to dream a lot about animals and have nightmares about imaginary creatures and animals. “Children have a natural tendency to identify with animals, as we see in cartoons and books,” says Simard.

Kids eight years and up are more likely to dream about being lost or kidnapped, which may be related to their growing independence, she says. They may also dream about not being prepared for a test.

Bad dreams, begone!

Georganne Clarkson, a mom of two in Burlington, Ont., helps her 10-year-old deal with scary dreams and nightmares using visualization. “In his dreams, Ben is often in peril with the characters from Star Wars. The next day at bedtime, we ask him to picture himself with the character, doing something funny or happy. His dreams usually turn around and we talk about it the next morning.”

Clarkson’s instincts are right on. This pre-sleep imagining, known as imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT), has been shown to decrease nightmare frequency and severity. Drawing a different ending for the dream could help too. For example, in one study, a child who had nightmares about being kidnapped from his bedroom drew pictures of himself in bed, using a remote control to make the kidnapper do what he wanted. IRT may work by letting kids imagine controlling the outcome, which reduces anxiety.

Dreams by numbers

Babies While infants obviously can’t tell us if they’re dreaming, research shows that they spend half their snooze time in the sleep phase where dreams most often take place, suggesting that babies likely do dream. Their dreams might involve vague sensations, images and sounds, Simard says.

Six and under Before age five, dream recall is quite poor; there aren’t a lot of details and the child usually watches the dream unfold, rather than participating in it. “We don’t know if young children are unaware of their dreams or simply don’t have the verbal abilities to describe them,” says Simard. “However, children aged three to six may start to develop intense nightmares, and they are usually able to recount them if guided by a parent.”

Seven to 12 Dream recall starts to increase between ages five and seven and, after seven, becomes quite frequent as verbal skills develop along with a child’s ability to visualize in 3-D and imagine herself moving. At this stage, kids stop being observers and start participating in their dreams. “The next change in dream recall frequency occurs during adolescence, where it is thought to become more frequent in girls and less frequent in boys,” Simard adds, although no one knows why.

What influences dreams?

Smells A recent German study found that smelling rotten eggs while you sleep triggers bad dreams, and the scent of roses leads to good ones. That might convince your tween to get rid of the festering dishes in his room.

Screen time Avoiding disturbing TV and computer games is a good policy. Not surprisingly, the more traumatic the images a person views during the day, the more likely they are to show up, directly or indirectly, in dreams, according to research conducted after the 9/11 attacks.

Temperament In a study of nearly a thousand kids conducted by University of Montreal researchers, children described by a parent as “anxious” or having a “difficult temperament” before age two were more likely to have nightmares after age two.

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