Dr's Casebook: How you can help your child cope with nightmares

Virtually every parent will at some stage have had to comfort a child after they have woken from a nightmare.

By Jane Chippindale
Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 8:38 am
Updated Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 8:41 am

Dr Keith Souter writes: These are distressing dreams that usually occur in a deep part of the sleep cycle. Usually, the child wakes full of fear. They are very common in children between the ages of three and four and between seven eight.

Being chased is the commonest theme. Whereas adults often dream of being chased by unknown human characters, children commonly report that they have been chased by animals or monsters. It is worth thinking about the games you play with your children, especially if you play the common ‘monster is going to get you!’

Nightmares can be manifestations of stress, which so many people have experienced during the pandemic. And of course, at this time when images of the war in Ukraine dominate the news and conversations. Domestic and family problems, bereavements, worries at school all need to be considered.

Nightmares are very common in children. Photo: Adobe

Other potential triggers for nightmares are easier to avoid or minimise, including: too much cheese, rich food, caffeine or cola late in the day, watching scary TV or listening to scary books before bedtime, and vigorous exercise or ‘horseplay’ before bed.

People think that it is a myth about cheese too late at night causing nightmares. Well, actually there is truth in it. The problem arises because cheese contains tyramine, which is a breakdown product of tyrosine, an amino acid protein.

Tyramine acts as a brain chemical stimulant. That is why cheese should be avoided at night in susceptible children.

Children often feel better by talking through their nightmares, so it is worth gentle exploration with them. Drawing or painting the nightmare gives a way of bringing it into the open day, where it can be shown to be less frightening. This would then give him the opportunity of ripping it up, and physically getting rid of it.

All children are imaginative, and therefore are susceptible to nightmares. And that being the case, you can use their imagination to help.

One technique is to imagine the nightmare characters and ‘talk’ to them, laugh with them, make them lose their scariness. And yet another technique is to use the imagination to change the story of the nightmare, to give it a happy ending.

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