WHAT CAUSES NIGHTMARES?
One important thing to know about nightmares is that they can happen for no reason. Better Health Victoria reveals that "The cause of nightmares isn't known, but it is thought to be the ordinary stresses and strains of growing up. Children who have experienced a traumatic event, for example, tend to have frequent nightmares for the next six months or so."
Professor Harriet Hiscock further explains that "During nightmares...children will usually wake up completely from their bad dream and be scared. They welcome a hug and can remember what happened in the morning."
Children who have an overactive imagination are more prone to nightmares as are children who are sick with a fever. Nightmares can also happen because a child is not getting enough sleep or going to bed too late at night.
AT WHAT AGE DO NIGHTMARES BEGIN?
Your child can start having scary dreams at two years of age. Nightmares will reach a peak between the ages of 3 and 6 years.
Often if a child is under five years, they will not be able to tell the difference between a nightmare and reality. That’s why most of the kids within that range wake up terrified after a nightmare and remain scared for a while before going back to sleep.
NIGHTMARES VS NIGHT TERRORS
Sometimes nightmares get confused with night terrors. Night terrors (also known as sleep terrors) are "dramatic events that present a partial arousal state from deep sleep," and are characterised by, "facial expressions of fear, shouting, screaming, gasps, moans, uncontrollable shouting and agitation." 
After a nightmare, the person wakes up may remember details but a person who has experienced a night terror remains asleep and does not remember anything in the morning, although they may be able to recall aspects of the sleep terror immediately following the episode. Night terrors generally occur in the first third to first half of the night, and rarely during naps. Sleep terrors and sleepwalking are part of a group of parasomnias (undesirable movements and behaviours that occur during sleep) and are linked.
So if your child is experiencing a night terror, they may seem wide awake but they are actually not. Their eyes may be open but they will not realise that you are in the same room. It is best not to try and calm your child if they are experiencing a night terror as you could make the situation worse. Your child will calm down themselves and go back to sleep once the night terror is over.
Though the cause of night terrors is still unknown, it seems to be hereditary. This is because children who experience such sleep-distractions come from families with a history of night terrors, sleep talking, or sleepwalking.
Night terrors affect almost 40 percent of children and a much smaller percentage of adults. However frightening, night terrors aren't usually a cause for concern. Most children outgrow night terrors by their teenage years.
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR CHILD DEAL WITH NIGHTMARES?
If your young one tends to experience nightmares more often, there are several things you can do to minimise or brush off the bad dreams. Such things include:
1. Keeping on top of your child’s sleep and ensuring that they get enough sleep in every 24 hour period.
Your child’s sleep needs to be quality sleep –Is their sleep environment encouraging restful sleep? Are they getting enough sleep? Maybe their bedtime needs to be earlier?
2. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine.
Do you have a good bedtime routine that starts two hours before bedtime and lets their brain and body wind down from what went on in the day? Are the books you are reading before bed conducive to restful sleep? i.e. No dragons or monsters or vampires in the stories? TV should be off by 4pm as it is just so stimulating and often as parents we are often not even aware of what our children are watching or what the episodes contain.
3. Discussing the nightmare with your child if there is a reoccurring theme.
If your child is experiencing nightmares with common themes or the same nightmare over and over it would be a good idea to have a chat as it might be something that is in fact bothering your child. Things like starting a new school, the introduction of a younger sibling or even moving house can be enough stress for a young child to start having nightmares. Talk to your child about dreams and explain that everyone has dreams and lots of people have nightmares.
4. Reassuring your child - Don't ignore them!
Give your child a comfort toy so that during the night if they wake up they can give that toy a cuddle and use it as a form of support. Use a night light that is pink, red or yellow as blue or white light actually prohibits the production of melatonin (our sleep hormone). You can also keep their bedroom door open. Get your child to draw our their fears on a piece of paper an hour before bedtime and then put it next to your bed so that you can “keep the fears away” and “keep them safe”. We would never use tactics such as “monster spray” as this showing your child that there is something to be scared of. We want them to know that there is nothing to be afraid of in the first place.
5. Not letting your child sleep with you!
When you're exhausted and at the end of your tether it is really tempting to bring your child into bed with you so you can get some much needed rest. This often backfires with nightmares and it suggests to you child that sleeping in their own bed is causing the nightmare. They may then become scared of sleeping in their own bed and want to sleep with you every night.
 Sleep Terrors in Childhood
Mason, Thornton B.A. et al.
The Journal of Pediatrics, Volume 147, Issue 3, 388 - 392
FIND OUT MORE
So should you do a dream feed?
The aim of a dream feed is for you to feed your baby and then for them to consolidate the rest of their night sleep and not wake until morning (once they are age appropriate to go onto one feed a night). The dream feed will teach your baby to have their night feed before midnight, as opposed to after midnight so that you as a parent can go to bed and get a decent chunk of sleep after the dream feed.
When can I start a dream feed?
Very early on in the newborn weeks, you will find that your baby may be cluster feeding in the early evening and then do a big chunk of sleep after that. If your baby is not cluster feeding then they may wake at 9pm or 10pm naturally for a feed. Therefore, dream feeding is not encouraged in those early weeks.
At around 6-12 weeks, you can introduce an "awake feed" at 10pm. Wake your baby up fully, give a half feed, have a kick on the mat and then give them the other half and back to bed. This awake time should be around 30 to 45 minutes. If your baby then sleeps for a good three to five hours (depending on age and size), then this shows that the awake feed is working and you should only have to get up once more before morning!
Once they are 12 weeks you can start turning this into more of a dream feed and keep them asleep, rather than waking them up.
My baby still wakes after the dream feed!
If your baby is waking around 1am or 2am after you have given them the dreamfeed then this is a sign that it is not working. I would simply skip the dream feed, allow them to wake naturally for that one feed and then go back to sleep for the remainder of the night.
If you are doing a dream feed and your baby is not taking in a decent amount of milk, they are essentially having a "snack" and this then sets them up to do this for the remainder of the night. It is better to skip the dream feed and let them wake up when they will be genuinely hungry and ready to take a bigger feed.
You should be getting 5-6 hours of good sleep after a dream feed once your baby is 12 weeks old.
When should I drop the dream feed?
Drop the dream feed if it not working - i.e. You are not getting 5-6 hours of good, consolidated sleep after 12 weeks of age.
Between 5 to 6 months is a good time to start looking at dropping the dream feed as it will start to interrupt night time sleep cycles. Interrupting night time sleep cycles leads to further nighttime wakes. It is best to just let your baby wake naturally for a feed after this age and not schedule feeds overnight.
By the time your baby is on two solid meals a day of (around one quarter to one half of a cup each) you can look at dropping night feeds altogether. This usually happens at around 6.5 months.
What time is best for the dream feed?
You want to attempt a dream feed in your baby's deepest stage of sleep over night. This runs from 6pm or 7pm through to 11pm. Therefore the ideal window to dream feed is between 10pm to 11pm, before that stage of sleep ends. If it is after 11pm, leave your baby to wake naturally for their feed. It is also important to note that dream feeding prior to 10pm only encourages that last bedtime feed to not be as full/complete as it could be, as your baby’s digestive system learns they get another feed in a couple of hours, so there is no need to have a full feed at bed time.
Dream feeds will only work 50% of the time. If your night sleep is already very fragmented and your baby is over 16 weeks, very rarely does introducing a dream feed help. You should rather work on teaching your baby some self-settling skills so that they can consolidate their night sleep.
The below list is just a guide for those of you thinking about night weaning. Your baby may naturally start sleeping all night and you may never have to consciously night wean your baby yourself – and that’s great! When your baby starts to night wean or when you decide your baby is ready to night wean is a really individual decision and definitely one you shouldn’t be comparing with friends or your mum’s group – some babies sleep through from 12 weeks of age and some are still having one night feed at 9 months. Some mums want to carry on night feeding even though their baby might be ready to stop – night times are quiet and it allows some bonding time with their bub, especially if they have gone back to work and really miss spending time with their baby during the day. This is why this topic is so individual – it is up to YOU when you want to stop – you will know when it is time.
How do I know if my baby is ready to night wean?
Sometimes night weaning is more emotional for mum than anyone else. Those warm baby cuddles in the middle of the night are just so beautiful and it can be quite a hard decision to give that up. For others who simply want their full night’s sleep back it can be easy.
Due to the fact that you are still feeding at night your body will still be producing the hormones prolactin and oxytocin (responsible for breastfeeding). It is these hormones that allow us to go back to sleep easily after a night feed as they make us feel relaxed. Once you decide to stop feeding at night, your body will stop making these hormones and you can become quite tearful and emotional as your body adapts. You are more likely to feel this change if you cut all night feeds “cold turkey” vs. gradually cutting down the amount or timing of the feeds over the course of around a week.
How do you night wean?
The key to night weaning is being consistent – if you decide to wean then stick with it. It can be really exhausting, especially if you are spending a fair amount of time resettling your baby for the first few nights. Giving in and feeding them to get back to sleep is called “inconsistent reinforcement” and sends very mixed messages, which are confusing for your baby.
There are a couple of ways that you can night wean:
The important thing to remember when resettling without a feed is not to introduce any other negative sleep association such as rocking, patting or holding. Water can also be a negative sleep association as your baby may still wake for the water – the comfort is in the act of the sucking, not in what they are getting out of the bottle. Your resettling efforts should be structured in such a way that you can do less and less over the course of a few days or a week so that your baby learns to go back to sleep on their own.
As a sleep consultant I can be really helpful during the process as I can provide you with settling tools and a night weaning schedule to make the process easy and stress free. I am a mum and I understand how hard it is to give up those beautiful, sweet cuddles in the night but I also understand how hard it is waking up multiple times a night for months on end!
Mums tell us how they night weaned
“My son did so by himself, at 8 months, with no intervention from me and I was fine feeding him up until that point.”
“We used my husband to do the resettling in the night and that worked quite well.”
“I dropped my daughter’s night feeds when she was 7 months. I'd had weeks of getting up 5+ times a night and her only settling on the breast, never for my hubby. One day I worked out that I'd fed her 14 times in 24 hours and only 4 of those were in daylight! She stopped cold turkey and we taught her to self-settle with some controlled crying at the same time. She's basically slept through ever since (illness, teething, nightmares aside).”
“We have had some success in him dropping his first feed by sending my husband in to settle him as he doesn't smell of yummy milk. We set a 'not before' time every night that got progressively later until his first night feed just got so close to his second one that he dropped it. If he woke at 2am and the not before time was 3am, my husband would just pat/shh/dummy intermittently until the feed time. Sometimes he would doze off, sometimes not, but my son isn't much of a crier. He would more just lie in bed and grizzle so it wasn't too emotionally trying for us.”
Lauryn Stanlake - Infant and Child Sleep Consultant