Dear David Coleman: My four-year-old wakes up screaming in the night
Q My four-year-old daughter is having these nightmares where she'll be screaming or crying in her sleep and even when we go in to comfort her, she doesn't seem to recognise us and we can't seem to calm her down. She never remembers the dreams in the morning. We are very worried as it is so upsetting to see her so distressed. What is the best thing to do?
David replies: It sounds to me like your daughter may be experiencing night terrors more than nightmares. Night terrors are rarely recalled the next day and a child doesn't wake up during the terror, and doesn't respond to any effort to soothe or comfort them either. In fact, waking them during the terror can be even more upsetting for them. With a nightmare, the child usually gets woken up by the bad dream.
It is awfully hard for parents to witness such terrors and they are usually really upsetting for both the child and the parents. Sometimes night terrors may happen more if your child isn't getting enough sleep so it's important that she follows a good bedtime routine. Addressing any background stresses (like significant separations, school or other pressures) may also help.
There is little else you can do, other than be available to her if she wakes up, and just make sure she is physically safe (because she may roll or wriggle around the bed during the terror). Most children grow out of night terrors.
So, difficult as it may be, you need to remind yourself that she is OK and that this phase will pass.