Last night, errr… this early morning, my son startled us awake… again, yelling for help. Shoulders bumping on every door frame from our room to his, I find him, eyes, wide-open and frantic, communicating in jumbly jargon; something along the lines of a monster or hands were grabbing him, his body twisting around. As any concerned mommy would do, I stroked his hair, told him he is safe, and it’s just a dream. Finally, he blinked awake, and said “I’m back now Mama.”
It’s a scary thing hearing screams at night, ripping you out of your sleep, for the first time, and the 20th time. For our 3-year-old, nightmares and sleep illusions are a common thing. Especially when he has a fever of any kind, is overly tired, is experiencing growing pains… pretty much everything really. I was super concerned at first, mentioning it to our medical provider. Thankfully it’s a phase… maybe. Typically, most children begin having nightmares/ hallucinations around 3 years of age and outgrow them by the time they reach their teen years, and there’s not a thing nothing to worry about.
But then there are people like me… who don’t really outgrow it.
As an adult, every so often I experience sleep visions and hallucinations, especially after traveling or from stress and exhaustion. Eyes open, looking around my room, freaking out because a GIANT venomous spider (!!!) is falling from the ceiling ONTO MY FACE. As a teenager, I tried leaving my house, to walk 8 blocks to a house where I thought I left my bike at, at 1:14 AM. Or the time I was convinced I had a swarm of bats invading my room. These sleep hallucinations and dreams are vivid, making it hard not to remember these moments – because I always wake up embarrassed. It’s like that falling in your sleep feeling, and you think everyone heard you do it… because they totally did. As a kid, I can still recall my nightly reoccurring nightmare; A snowmobile, chasing me across the street, attempting to gobble me up as I’m trying to unlock my front door. I mean, really, who locked their doors in the 90’s? As an adult, I can manage my emotions and laugh at myself after I come to. But when you’re little, you don’t know how to process those big, dream-state scaries.
So, what are sleep hallucinations? According to sleepeducation.org, it’s a sleep disorder, categorized as parasomnia. Parasomnia is when undesired events interrupt sleep. They are imagined events that seem very real. Mainly visual, they can involve sense of touch, sound, taste, and smell, and even sense of motion – hello walking 8 blocks at 1AM. You may not be sure if you’re awake or asleep. You might also experience complex visual hallucinations of stationary images (spiders!). Sleep hallucinations tend to occur as you are about to fall asleep or are just waking up. Nightmares, thankfully, go away once a child wakes up since nightmares fall under the ‘dream’ category. The fear from the dream may still be present minutes after waking up, however.
There are a few things I do when the nightmares creep in to help alleviate the frightmares:
- Give them a nice guzzle of water and turn on a light. Images tend to go away when a light is turned on.
- If they are having a hard time coming out of it, I bust out extra head rubs, gentle words, and plenty of reassurance. There is nothing more comforting than your child hearing they are safe from someone they love.
- Ask if they want to talk about it. Although my little guy tends to drift back into lala land lickety split.
- After some snuggles, I’ll nuzzle a stuff buddy under his arm and tell him to squeeze it if he feels scared.
- Offer up some mood lighting – a simple nightlight can make all the difference. If the nightmares are frequent enough, have your child pick out their very own “safelight” or sleep token for nighttime protection.
- Most importantly, your touch, smell, and voice will bring your little person immediate comfort.
As time goes on, our 3-year-old is picking up on things he can do to help himself come out of his icky dreams. He’s starting to wake up, drink water and grab a plush, or calls for help if he can’t manage his scary dreams. Whether you’re hearing it for the first time, or working through it for another year, find the safety routine that works best for you, and hopefully everyone will experience a more restful and peaceful night sleep.