How to Calm Your Child After a Nightmare
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How to Calm Your Child After a Nightmare

Most parents have experienced it: Your young child wakes up distraught, sure that the nightmare they've just suffered through is real.

Dr. Anis Rehman, an internal medicine specialist and consultant to the Sleep Foundation, says that about half of kids ages 3 to 6 experience frequent nightmares, and about 20% of kids ages 6 to 12 do. Both sexes seem equally prone to bad dreams, although they may be more common in girls starting at about age 13.

1. What are nightmares, anyway?

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According to the Sleep Foundation, a nightmare usually occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is typically a final phase of sleep. That explains why a child will often wake with a nightmare in the middle of the night or early morning.

2. 'Night terrors'

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Night terrors -- episodes of terror or panic while sleeping -- are different from nightmares, Rehman explained. About 30% of kids are thought to experience night terrors, and they're most common between the ages of 3 and 7, usually resolving by age 10.

And unlike nightmares, kids will often act out, shout or cry while asleep and having the dream. Sleepwalking can often coincide with night terrors.

3. What parents can do

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Be careful though of having kids relying too much on your reassurance. Instead, encourage your child to learn to self-soothe themselves after waking up from a bad dream, the foundation advised.

For the same reason, Rehman says co-sleeping with your child after a nightmare probably isn't a great idea -- getting kids dependent on co-sleeping might even boost nightmare frequency.

One proven strategy: Introducing kids to a "sleep partner" such as a doll or stuffed animal.

4. When is it time to see a doctor about nightmares?

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child doctor

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The foundation offered up two guidelines to know when nightmares are becoming more than an annoyance: If a child is having nightmares at least twice a week for six months or more, or if frequent nightmares continue past the age of 6.

That might signal the need for psychological help, the foundation said.

Common underlying issues or conditions that might spur frequent, long-term nightmares are sexual assault, abuse and other types of trauma such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

5. Source and more information

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