Should you wake up a child who's having a nightmare or just let him sleep it out?
Nightmare or Night Terror?
I think it depends on whether your child is having a nightmare or a night terror. What is the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?
A nightmare is basically just a bad dream, whereas a night terror is a sleep disorder that occurs in about 15% of young children (it also occurs in adults).
When we sleep, we go through 5 different stages of sleep - 1 REM (rapid eye movement) stage and 4 non-REM. REM sleep is also known as the dream phase and this is the phase where regular dreams and nightmares occur. REM sleep is the lightest of all 4 stages of sleep. It occurs several times during the night - the last one occurs just before waking. During REM sleep, there is a noticeable twitching movement of the eyes under closed lids and the voluntary muscles are usually paralysed. The paralysis of the muscles ensures that children having nightmares are unable to hurt themselves.
Children having nightmares are easily woken and soothed. They will also remember the nightmare and can tell you about it if they are old enough to articulate their dreams.
A night terror occurs usually in the fourth stage of sleep - also the deepest stage of sleep. This is the reason why it is very difficult to wake a child having a night terror. Unlike nightmares, children having night terrors can hurt themselves because they are not protected by the paralysis of the voluntary muscles that occurs during REM sleep.
Children having night terrors may bolt upright with their eyes wide open but they will be neither awake nor asleep. They do not remember the night terror and it usually occurs in the early part of the night (usually within the first four hours of falling asleep). Night terrors can last anywhere between 5 to 30 minutes, after which, the children will return to normal sleep.
What Should You Do?
If your child is having a nightmare, then you should wake them, comfort them and help them get back to sleep. A child who has had a nightmare can be easily comforted.
If your child is having a night terror, it is probably best that you don't wake them. Waking a child who is having a night terror is only likely to make the child agitated and scared because of your own reaction to their night terror. They won't remember the episode anyway. The best thing to do is to make sure they are safe, comfort them if you can (although your child may not be fully conscious, your child can still hear your voice which will be soothing to him), and then help them return to sleep when it is over.
My son who is one year old has had night terrors before where he appears to be awake. His eyes are wide open and his is crying hysterically but he is inconsolable and doesn't appear to register my presence. I usually hold him, talk to him and stroke his back until the episode is over. They say that a child having a night terror may push you away the more you try to hold them, but this has never happened with my son.
Although no treatment is necessary for children with night terrors, you can prevent them by making sure that your child has a good bedtime routine. Night terrors are often triggered when children are overtired so make sure you get your child to sleep before they push past their limits. I have noticed that the nights where my son gets a night terror usually coincides after a big day out and he's been too excited to nap during the day.
Hope this helps...