While nightmare are no fun for anyone, when they repeatedly affect a child it can be particularly scary. Why does this happen? What does it mean? If we can understand the incidence of nightmares in children, including identifying potential causes, we can all sleep a little better. Let's take a look.
What Are Nightmares?
Nightmares are similar to dreams in that they contain vivid imagined activity during sleep -- often with an intense emotional experience or memory -- but they tend to be distressing when recalled upon awakening. Nightmares begin to occur in childhood and they are thought to be part of our ability to develop appropriate fear responses to real-world threats.
How Common Are Nightmares in Children?
Nightmares are quite common among children. Specifically, 24% of 2- to 6-year-olds, 41% of 6- to 10-year-olds, and 22% of adolescents report nightmares. Most nightmares occur in the second half of the night, when there is an increased amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is often associated with vivid dream imagery.
What Causes Nightmares?
Nightmares are produced by the parts of the brain that are responsible for REM sleep. These include areas important in memory and the processing of emotional experiences -- key elements to nightmares. The areas that are particularly active during REM sleep include the amygdala, parahippocampal gyrus, and anterior cingulate gyrus.
Although most nightmares in children are a normal part of growing up, there can sometimes be other potential causes. These include:
- Non-REM parasomnias
- Sleep-disordered breathing (i.e., sleep apnea)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Ultimately, if you are concerned that your child’s nightmares are disrupting his or her sleep, then you should speak with your pediatrician about the need for possible additional evaluation and treatment.
Durmer, JS and Chervin, RD. "Pediatric sleep medicine." Continuum Neurol 2007;13(3):153-200.
Hobson, JA et al. "The neuropsychology of REM sleep dreaming." Neuroreport 1998;9(3):R1-14.