Interrupted sleep: why is my kid waking up?

In the middle of the night, interrupted sleep

So I’m sleeping soundly. Baby girl is peaceful, and I’m getting much needed rest. Suddenly I hear it. That piercing shriek that gets me out of bed before my eyes have even opened. My daughter has had a night terror. My interrupted sleep doesn’t matter — she needs me.

Dreams, nightmares, night terrors, what’s the difference? Nightmares and night terrors interrupt our sleep, but dreams are integral to a good night’s sleep. Is there a way to prevent dreams from going bad?

Interrupted sleep isn’t good for either mom or child.

We need our sleep! A good night’s sleep is essential to good health, good coping skills and managing stress. Without good sleep, we get overwhelmed easier, we struggle with our emotions and our immune systems are weakened. So frequent interrupted sleep isn’t a good thing.

What is dreaming?

Dreaming is vaguely defined as the perceptions, thoughts and feelings experienced during sleep. We are aware of our dreams at some level, though we don’t always remember them. But scientists can tell us when we are dreaming, because they can see the physical signs in our brains.

We dream frequently. There are different kinds of dreams, and they can vary, not only from person to person, but according to the time of night, the stage of sleep, and even what’s going on around you.

Dreams can be episodic – that is, you experience a story, whether that’s a memory or something your mind creates new. They can be fragmented, just a series of pictures, sounds, feelings, and random thoughts with no real connection to each other.

They can include things that happened to us the previous day, or maybe something that happened a week ago. Or maybe they will be memories of something that happened a long time ago. Or not even true memories at all, but rather a creative story our brains make up, using the bits and pieces of our familiar lives.

The dreams that happen during non-REM sleep tend to be shorter and more cohesive, featuring recent events. The dreams that happen during deeper sleep can be more chaotic and puzzling.

Dreams that happen earlier in the night tend to be more sensible than those that happen in the early hours of the morning. And there’s evidence that up to 30% of our dreams is our minds getting creative!

What causes a nightmare?

Nightmares are defined as very negative dreams that wake us up. Given that scientists aren’t really sure why we dream, it can be hard to tell why we would dream negatively. But nightmares lead to interrupted sleep.

Some scientists think that dreams are just a result of the random firing of our neurons during sleep. Neurons that fire in the sensory interpretation parts of our brain are what cause us to see things and hear things that aren’t really there at night.

Other scientists think that dreaming is part of our brain sorting through the experiences of our days and weeks and putting them into our memories. So we re-experience them, in bits and pieces, as they get processed and stored.

Another suggestion is that dreams are a kind of “virtual simulation” world, where our brain uses our existing experiences to try to prepare and work through the “what ifs” of the future.

Our dreams can be influenced during the day and even while we are sleeping. We can, with practice, learn “lucid dreaming”, where you can control your dreams, even while you’re sleeping. Hypnosis, visualization and meditation techniques can modify our dreams.

And even scents during sleeping can change a dream. Pleasant aromas induce pleasant dreams, and foul odors will begin negative dreams.

What is a night terror?

A night terror isn’t a dream at all. Unlike a nightmare, which is a negative dream, a night terror is a result of a physical fear response, as the person moves from a deeper stage of sleep to a lighter stage of sleep. Most often, that transition is smooth, but sometimes, the nervous system can overreact and that’s when you get a night terror, and interrupted sleep.

A night terror is defined as a physical sleep interruption, without actually waking.  The person experiencing a night terror may suddenly sit up, cry out, thrash around, act upset or scared, but then just as suddenly calm right down and go back to sleeping soundly. They won’t remember anything, because there was no mental image, and they were in deep sleep when it happened.

It can be scarier for a parent than the child, when your child experiences a night terror. There’s not much you can do about it! Even if you can wake them, waking them can make it worse, because they wake up feeling the fear, and then your night can be over, because now they’re too scared to sleep.

I don’t handle helplessness well, so my daughter’s night terrors were difficult for me. She slept through them, though!

Preventing nightmares

If your child is experiencing frequent nightmares, first, check what they are doing, seeing and hearing during the day. Nightmares can be triggered by traumatic events, either witnessing or experiencing. And an adult’s definition of trauma can be different than a child. So while you might think seeing the evening news is no big deal, your child might have a different reaction.

Second, teach them some basic meditation and visualization skills. This is especially helpful at bedtime. Not only can meditation help them to relax, but learning to fill their minds with happy, calming images right before they fall asleep will give them more pleasant dreams.

So teach them to, for example,  draw a rainbow in their mind, focusing on how each color looks beside the next one. Or have them imagine themselves playing with their ideal pet. My daughter loves cats, and so every night I tell her to close her eyes and imagine herself cuddling her ideal fluffy cat.

Third, try aromatherapy. As mentioned above, science has shown that pleasant smells lead to happier dreams. So use a diffuser to waft fragrances your child likes at night. Or try scenting their pillow and sheets with smells that will promote sleep, such as lavender or chamomile.

Preventing night terrors

Because night terrors aren’t true dreams, the causes and methods to prevent are different. Stress, illness, and being overtired can lead to more frequent night terrors. Some medications can cause night terrors. And sleeping in a different environment or away from home can trigger a night terror too.

Plus, there’s a link between caffeine and night terrors, so that may be a cause for your child. In addition, if you have a family member that is prone to sleep walking, your child may inherit a tendency towards night terrors and other kinds of interrupted sleep.

There’s no cure for night terrors, so thankfully they are relatively rare. Only 3-6% of kids will experience them. Most of the time, you just have to wait for their nervous system to mature, before they go away entirely. But there are a few things you can do to help prevent them.

First, stress and change can be triggers for night terrors. So try to reduce your child’s stress levels during the day, and stick to a consistent bedtime routine. Children’s bodies have a harder time regulating when they are overtired, so make sure your child gets enough sleep and rest, even if that means bumping up bedtime. And maybe add in a nap during those increased sleep need periods.

Interrupted sleep isn’t fun for anyone.

We all know the importance of a good night’s sleep. So when your sleep gets interrupted, it can set off a chain reaction that can affect your whole day. While everyone dreams, there are things you can do to help make sure those dreams are good dreams and not bad dreams. Use meditation techniques, aromatherapy, and get that full night’s sleep. Sleep well!

Is your sleep interrupted because your child is waking?

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