How Nightmares Affect Your Kid's Brain, According To Science

Ensuring your child gets enough sleep is one thing, but quality matters just as much. Unless you're hovering over the better part of the night, or your child comes to your bedside to wake you, it's difficult to know if they're getting the rest their brain requires or if, instead, nightmares are interfering. Nightmares do a real number on emotional and physical health and if yours has them, you might wonder how nightmares affect your kid's brain.

First of all, it's worth noting that, according to the Cleveland Clinic, nightmares happen "in the second half of the night and are associated with full awareness and clear recall." The clinic adds that an estimated 10 to 50 percent of children ages 3-6 have nightmares, and that girls are affected more than boys. Around this time in their lives, they're typically going through different developmental stages. As a result of those changes, the way the brain interprets that stress can manifest into a nightmare. Psychologist Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You Dread Your Bed, tells Parents that "the function of dreams seems to be to make sense of our experiences during the day." A younger child might dream about getting lost from a parent, whereas an older child would dream about a scary image from television that stuck with them. Most of the time, nightmares aren't anything to worry about.

So, how do nightmares affect your kid's brain? Not to be confused with night terrors — which come with obvious physical symptoms, like rapid breathing, sweating, screaming, confusion, and no recollection of the events the next day — nightmares, if happening often enough, can morph into a full-blow sleep disorder. Psychology Today says reports that nightmares become a problem if they regularly impair "social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning," or if they "interfere with sleep, development, or psychosocial development." The same site goes on to add that if signals from the cerebral cortex to the neurons that aid in paralysis of limbs get mixed or are somehow shut off, you might have a child who physically acts their nightmare out — a dangerous situation for all.

A 2014 study in Sleep reported that persistent nightmares could be an indicator of something more serious. The objective of the study, which used over 6,000 child participants, was to point out specific parasomnias and psychotic experiences in childhood. After following the children, ages 2 to 9 through the age of 12, researchers determined persistent nightmares are, in fact, correlated with those psychotic experiences years later. This means with frequent nightmare wakings, and accompanying symptoms, doctors might be able to identify mental health disorders in children earlier than previously believed. A 2015 study in British Journal of Psychiatry backs this research up. This time, 4,270 children between the ages of 2 and 9 had follow-up assessments at ages 12 and 18. There's connection between consistent nightmares at age 12 and psychotic experiences around 18. The study's findings concluded that "nightmares might be an early risk indicator for psychosis."

Harvard Medical School reports that if nightmares are a regular occurrence, it's important to rule out excess stress, anxiety, or any related traumas or disorders such as PTSD. Deirdre Barrett, PhD, an HMS assistant clinical professor of psychology at Cambridge Health Alliance and editor of “Trauma and Dreams,” says this is because "the region of the brain involved in fear behaviors, including the amygdala, a structure deep in the brain that works to identify potential threats, may be overactive or overly sensitive." Basically, a lot of nightmares can possibly signal something deeper, so it's important to pay attention as to whether there's any behavioral changes.

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Rest assured, most of the time nightmares are a normal part of childhood development. If you're unsure as to whether your child's persistent nightmares are something to worry about, common signs of a nightmare disorder include vivid dreams regarding personal safety or the safety of others that occur in the second half of a sleep state, feeling completely alert after waking, and when your child isn't on medication that might cause nightmares as a side effect. If you suspect your child is having too many nightmares or shows signs of behavioral change, speak to your doctor about a treatment plan that may include ways to reduce stress, setting the stage for a good night's sleep, and ruling out any underlying conditions.

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