By Wendy HaafUpdated Jun 18, 2013
Dreams, those secret landscapes submerged beneath sleep’s sea, were once thought to be visitations from gods assuming the shapes of humans, animals and inanimate objects. Though we no longer believe Morpheus and his brothers control the tide of images that flood our dozing minds, dreams have lost little of their mystery.
So what happens when your child sails off to slumber? And how do the events of the day — and night — influence her unconscious life?
Patricia Garfield, a San Francisco-area psychologist and author of The Dream Book: A Young Person’s Guide to Understanding Dreams, offers this analogy: “I think of a dream as a three-storey house,” she says, with the physical body located in the basement, thoughts and feelings on the first floor, and spiritual connections (including dreams of God and departed loved ones) in the attic.
The release of acetylcholine (a chemical messenger linked to learning and memory) in the brain switches on the furnace that fires dreaming. Produced naturally in large amounts during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, acetylcholine can also induce dreaming when it’s artificially administered.
Most, though not all, dreams occur during REM. Imagine slumber as a flight of stairs with non-REM at the bottom. Your child’s brain slowly descends into deep sleep (when brain activity and heart rate slow) before ascending to REM (during which brain waves and heart rate rev up and major muscles become temporarily paralyzed). This cycle continues throughout the night, with REM periods growing longer and more frequent.
“Even before babies are born, we know they cycle between REM and non-REM sleep, from looking at their heart rate and their activity,” notes Shelly Weiss, co-director of the Sleep Clinic at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
Does that mean fetuses float off to dreamland? The only way to tell whether someone is dreaming is to wake him and ask, so it’s anyone’s guess. However, since toddlers as young as 14 months have reported dreaming, we can probably infer infants do too, says Weiss.
Your child’s body can influence dreams on another level. During relatively light REM sleep, your child may detect changes in the environment that become embedded into his dream. Say the room becomes chilly — your son might dream of snow. Fevers and some physical illnesses can also trigger bouts of furious dreaming.
But apart from these concrete connections, where does the content of our dreams come from? Some scientists argue that dreams are merely random by-products of biology that our brains weave into stories; others believe images in our dreams symbolize different aspects of our emotional life (see “Dream Detective,”). Regardless, your child’s dreams can provide clues to what’s going on in his head. “Does your child dislike his teacher?” asks Garfield. “Is there a bully in the class? All of these would be dealt with in dream life.” This doesn’t necessarily mean your son will relive that schoolyard confrontation, just that his feelings in a dream may somehow reflect his waking emotions.
So what do kids dream about? The answers are as individual as your child. In research Garfield conducted with more than 100 children, the three most commonly reported “good dream” themes included enjoying a pleasurable activity (one little girl frolicked with a unicorn — animals appear more often in kids’ dreams than in adults’), receiving a desirable gift (a coveted pair of yellow sneakers) and delivering an outstanding performance (executing that perfect pass to resounding applause).
In Garfield’s study, kids recalled fewer such sweet dreams than unpleasant ones, which outnumbered the former by about two to one. The three most common “bad” dreams included being chased or attacked, “sensing something scary,” and becoming injured or sick.
These frightening dreams or nightmares (which are more likely to occur in early morning, during the most concentrated periods of REM) can crop up at any age, but they peak around age five or six, when frequent scary dreams are considered a normal part of development. It may be no accident that they coincide with the first few years of school.
“There’s so much to take in that many children find it difficult because they don’t yet have the kinds of skills adults do,” says Klaus Minde, professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal.
Nightmares can also be related to stress. If your child starts experiencing more nightmares than usual, think about what’s going on in her life. Have you recently moved? Is she fighting with her best friend? Her dreams may serve as an outlet for frustrations or fears about these situations.
Not getting enough sleep can also trigger disturbing dreams. If your child stays up too late, or his sleep schedule is otherwise disrupted, his body will try to catch up with extra-long bursts of REM the next time he drifts off. Called “REM rebound,” this phenomenon often features vivid, unsettling dreams.
Movies, TV and even books can also contribute to nightmares. And it’s not just violent or frightening fare that can weigh on your child’s nocturnal imaginings, according to Peter Nieman, a Calgary paediatrician. “In a kid who tends to be a worrier , even some family movies could cause nightmares,” he says.
So what can you do to help when your child wakes from a nightmare? Reassurance and your presence are a powerful balm. A hug, a cuddle or a back rub can all offer comfort. You may want to sit with your child until she falls back to sleep, and leave a night light or hall light on. Avoid extended searches of the closet to prove the monster isn’t really there. Not only can this ritual turn into a nightly bid to put off bedtime, it may actually boost your child’s anxiety level. Since children younger than about six sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between dreams, fantasy and reality, shining a light in the closet sends the unspoken message that finding a fanged beast lurking behind the bathrobe is a real possibility. Instead, explain that dreams can’t hurt her. Saying, “I know it felt scary, but dreams are imaginary stories that don’t come true,” or “I get scared when I have a nightmare too,” lets her know that an occasional bad dream is nothing to worry about.
However, if your child is one of the estimated three percent of kids who experience recurrent nightmares, the power of his imagination may help cut down on these occurrences. Mélanie St-Onge, a clinical psychologist in St-Romuald, Que., studied the effect of teaching nine- to 11-year-old children troubled by nightmares to “re-visualize” their bad dreams the following night. They were told to change whichever aspect of the nightmare they wanted, to turn it into a dream and practise visualizing the new mental movie with their eyes closed for ten minutes before bed. Virtually all of the kids experienced a drop in bad dreams.
Talk to your child about the nightmare. Why was it scary? What action could he take to make it turn out differently? If he was trapped in a room, could he call you on the phone, or enlist the help of a friend? Maybe he could summon magical powers — after all, he’s limited only by his imagination.
If your child is too young for the movie director method — six and under, say — have him draw a picture of the nightmare, then one of the non-scary version. If it doesn’t work the first time, get him to repeat the process and change something else. “Even adults believe they don’t have any control over their dreams — that they’re passive observers,” says St-Onge. “But we can take control, and it’s the same for children.” Standing up to bad dreams not only defuses anxiety, contends Garfield, it’s also a kind of assertiveness training that can build confidence by allowing kids to practise problem-solving skills and tackle their fears in a safe environment.
If this strategy doesn’t work, when should you get outside help? Consult your child’s doctor if recurring nightmares suddenly start at age six, increase in frequency (a sleep log can help keep track) or create problems like sleepiness during the day.
Worry can bloom into panic when a parent witnesses the thrashing and screaming that can accompany night terrors. A galloping pulse, rapid breathing, sweating and wide-eyed stare may add to the impression of blood-freezing fright.
So what’s going on in the brain and body of a child in the throes of a sleep terror? Unlike nightmares, night terrors don’t occur during REM. Instead, they arise out of the deepest phases of sleep, usually within an hour or two of dropping off. The brain’s gears somehow “stick” (brainwaves simultaneously show features of both the slow, regular rhythms of deep sleep and a waking pattern) and the body’s “fight or flight” response gets switched on. The result? A child who looks awake, if panic-stricken, and can move the large muscles that lie dormant during REM, but doesn’t seem aware of his surroundings (though he may push you away, notes paediatrician Nieman). While it’s not clear what triggers night terrors, several factors point to a physical cause, such as a slight lag in development in one area of the brain. As with sleepwalking and bedwetting, sleep terrors tend to run in families. More common in boys than girls, they typically appear between ages two and six, when hours spent in deep sleep peak — and usually fade away as a child’s sleep pattern matures. Kids prone to sleep terrors are particularly vulnerable when they haven’t had enough shut-eye: Racking up a “sleep debt” forces your child’s body to make up for lost deep sleep when her head finally hits the pillow, and the more time spent in deep sleep, the greater the odds of an episode.
As with nightmares, night terrors seem to be linked to stress, and some sufferers sense a frightening presence or image. Fortunately, the pictures don’t linger as long and the majority of kids don’t remember the episodes. “Night terrors are terrors for you, not your child,” St-Onge reassures. “He doesn’t remember, and he will stay asleep or quickly return to sleep.”
If you think your child is having a night terror, don’t try to wake him, since disturbing him could prolong it. Nieman and St-Onge recommend watching until he settles to ensure he doesn’t injure himself or start sleepwalking. Many sleep experts advise not even telling your child about it unless he asks. (Do alert other caregivers, and fill them in on what to do.)
Most kids grow out of night terrors, so unless they become violent or frequent enough to disrupt your family’s life, or your child does something dangerous during an attack, treatment probably isn’t necessary. Do, however, consult your child’s doctor if he experiences symptoms such as drooling or muscle spasms, which may indicate a mild seizure disorder, if the attacks become more frequent, or simply if you’re worried.
Make sure your child goes to the washroom before bed (a full bladder can sometimes trigger night terrors). Try to stick to a regular routine (including mealtimes, bedtime and waking time), reinstitute a nap if your child isn’t getting sufficient sleep, banish the TV from his bedroom and keep the room temperature comfortably cool.
Sure, these strategies won’t guarantee your child will drift off to visions of magical kingdoms in the clouds every night, but they should help everyone in the household catch a few more Z’s, and that’s a parent’s modest dream come true.
Most parents awakened by a sobbing or screaming child naturally assume the culprit is a bad dream. But is it?
When do attacks usually occur?
Nightmares: Early a.m.
Night Terrors: 1–2 hours after falling asleep
Is child alert when awakened?
Night Terrors: No
Do episodes feature moving/shouting?
Night Terrors: Yes
Can child recount dream?
Night Terrors: No
Does sleep return quickly?
Night Terrors: Yes
Whether you believe dreams are actually encrypted e-mails from the unconscious mind, sharing them and talking about what they might mean is a fun family activity that might make it easier for your kids to express what they’re thinking and feeling. While the only person who can truly interpret a dream is the dreamer, here are some suggestions from psychologist and dream expert Patricia Garfield.
Dream event: Being bitten or clawed by an animal
Your child may be feeling: Under emotional attack
Dream event: Wearing beautiful clothes
Your child may be feeling: Good about life
Dream event: Wearing pyjamas to school
Your child may be feeling: Emotionally exposed
Dream event: Falling
Your child may be feeling: Fear and insecurity
Dream event: Forgetting to study for a test
Your child may be feeling: Unprepared for a testing situation