Your child and sleep disturbances

Many children’s sleep is disturbed by nightmares, night terrors or sleepwalking. While these can frighten children and worry parents, children usually grow out of them.

Why sleep disturbances happen

There is often no clear reason why sleep disturbances happen.

They are more likely to occur if children are stressed, unwell or not getting enough sleep.

They are not linked to any emotional or mental health problems now or later in life.

It’s important to comfort children if they are afraid and to make sure they are safe.

If sleep disturbances keep happening or you are worried, talk with your doctor.

Nightmares

Nightmares are bad dreams that can upset and frighten children.

They can be about imaginary things such as monsters or something real in your child’s life. 

Young children can wake up thinking something bad has happened. As they get older they understand that dreams are not real.

Nightmares can be linked with worries and fears. They happen more often after a traumatic event or when a child is stressed, unwell, taking medication or not getting enough sleep.

If your child wakes from a nightmare you can try the following things:

  • comfort them and help them feel safe
  • stay with them until they go back to sleep
  • leave their bedroom door open or put a night-light on
  • give them a gentle massage
  • cuddle them, sing a song or play some gentle music
  • talk with them calmly about the nightmare for a short time.

How to prevent nightmares

To prevent nightmares, it can help to:

  • reduce daytime stress - eg: if toilet training, try putting it off for a while
  • avoid TV, computers and video games before  bed, especially any that could cause them to feel stressed or excited
  • have a relaxing bedtime routine - eg: a bath, a quiet story, a song and a goodnight kiss
  • try getting your child to relax and think of a happy, safe place while they go to sleep
  • try using your child’s imagination - ask them to draw what is scaring them and then screw it up and throw it away - this can give a sense of power over fears
  • talk during the daytime about any recurring nightmares your child is having - help them come up with a better ending.

Dreams help people deal with their worries. As children become more confident in dealing with problems, they tend to have fewer nightmares.

Night terrors

Night terrors are when a child becomes very agitated during deep sleep.

Children usually experience night terrors between the ages of 18 months and six years. They might scare you, but they don’t harm or scare your child.

If your child has night terrors, they might:

  • scream suddenly or cry and look pale and scared
  • kick and thrash about
  • call for you but not ‘see’ you - and cannot be comforted
  • breathe heavily, perspire and stare with wide-open eyes.

Night terrors can last for a few minutes or up to 20 minutes.

A child having a night terror is not dreaming. They are also not awake. In the morning they will not remember what happened.

What to do if your child has night terrors

If your child has night terrors:

  • don’t wake them - they may be confused and take longer to settle
  • stay with them even if they don’t let you comfort them  
  • make sure they are safe and guide them back to bed if needed
  • don’t talk about it the next day - they will not remember what happened
  • make sure they go to the toilet before bed
  • make sure they get enough sleep and have a relaxing bedtime routine.

If the night terror happens around the same time each night, try waking your child briefly about 10-15 minutes before that time and then settle them back to sleep.

Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is when your child walks or performs simple tasks while asleep.

It can start when children are between three and seven years old.

They will sleepwalk less as they get older.

Children have no control over what they do when they sleepwalk and can hurt themselves.

If your child sleepwalks:

  • don’t wake them - it can upset them
  • stay calm and guide them back to bed
  • make sure they are safe
  • lock doors and windows, put barriers across stairs, and place heaters, electric cords and any other dangerous objects out of the way
  • tie a bell to their bedroom door to alert you if they get up
  • let them know it’s not a sign of any problem or illness.

Sleep starts

Sleep starts or jerks are sudden, usually single jerks of the arms, legs or whole body at the beginning of sleep.

These are common in people of all ages and the causes are not known.

Sleep talking

Sleep talking is common.  It is more likely if children are excited or worried about something.

What they say may be clear or unclear and they might sit up when talking. They are not likely to remember the next day.

Try talking with them about their worries during the day.

Sleep talking can keep others awake - you might have to change where your children sleep.

Teeth grinding

Young children from about 10 months can grind their teeth. It usually doesn’t cause any damage.

Older children can put pressure on their teeth by clenching their jaw.

This can cause damage to the teeth, sore cheek muscles or headaches. Talk to your dentist if you are worried.

More information

For additional resources and support go to support services for parents, families and youth.

Find out more, including where you can get help to deal with your child's sleep disturbances, on the following pages: 

Copyright

This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 18 September 2017