- Jessica Berk
5 Ways to Help Your Child Through a Nightmare
There are 3 main reasons why kids wake up overnight - night terrors, nightmares and bad sleep habits. In the last blog post, we discussed night terrors. This week, we will dive into nightmares...
It’s 2:30am and you hear your child start crying. You’re hoping it stops quickly but then they wander into your room clearly still upset and mumbling about a scary robot with one eye running through the forest with no shoes on. It’s obvious they’ve had a nightmare.
Most kids ages 3 to 6 years old experience at least one nightmare. Chronic or frequent nightmares are rare and these bad dreams decrease after age 10.
Nightmares for kids can be scary and they usually cause the child to wake up. They may remember the dream when they wake up and maybe even the next day. These bad dreams can seem very real to kids whose imaginations are very active during this toddler/preschooler age.
There are 2 main differences between nightmares and night terrors.
Nightmares happen in the last third of the night, when we have more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Night terrors happen in the first few hours after bedtime.
Kids seek comfort after waking from a nightmare, they may feel scared. With night terrors, kids usually don’t wake up, don’t have any memory of the experience and do not need comforting to go back to sleep.
The exact cause of nightmares isn’t known, but they are much more common in kids who are overtired - meaning, they don’t get enough consistent sleep. Stress, traumatic events and being exposed to scary things (movies, books, stories) can also contribute to nightmares.
So, back to the dream... it's 2:30am, what do you do about the one-eyed robot?
Here are 5 Ways to Help Your Child Through a Nightmare
Comfort and reassure your child. They may be scared and need some extra middle of the night TLC. But avoid excessive attention. They will likely still be tired and able to fall back to sleep shortly. Do as little as you can to settle them and get them back down quickly.
Get them back in their own bed. If you allow them into your bed, you may be starting a slippery slope to a new bad sleep habit.
Keep the lights dim. Your goal is to get them back to sleep so don’t turn on any bright lights. A dim nightlight is okay.
Snuggle your child up with a favorite lovey or blanket. Having a security item in bed with them can be a great comfort.
Get out of the room once your child is calm and drifting off to sleep.
Nightmares are an occasional occurrence. In typical children, nightmares will not happen multiple times per week and certainly not multiple times per night. If your child is reporting nightly nightmares, you may be dealing with a bad sleep habit and not a true nightmare.
Look at the response you’re giving to the reported nightmare. If you are pulling them into your bed each night after a "nightmare" or showering the situation with too much attention, you may be setting up a bad sleep habit that is masked as being a nightmare. Parents usually have a pretty good feeling in their gut whether the nightmare is real or just an excuse to hop into bed with mom.
Still Scared the Next Day
If your child is still talking about the bad dream the next day here are some ways to take the “scariness” away.
- If there is a monster or scary person they are fixated on, have them draw it and then you add something to the picture to make it look really silly - like a baseball cap or tiara.
- Say silly things like “I wonder what a monster dresses up as for Halloween” "What does a one-eyed robot want for Christmas?" - try to add other funny images to your child’s imagination to combat the scary ideas.
- Bedtime books are also a great way to help overcome fears. You can find some of my favorites in my Amazon Shop, click here.
- If they are still talking about it at bedtime, change the subject by spending a few minutes discussing what great dreams they want to have. Really talk about the details of the great dream to help your child paint a happy picture.
Just like night terrors, there is evidence to show that nightmares occur more frequently in kids who are overtired - meaning kids who aren't getting enough sleep. Kids under 6 should be asleep before 8pm and sleeping 10-12 hours straight through the night each and every night.
If you need help figuring out how to make that happen, let me help you. I promise it won't be as difficult as you might think and it only takes a week or two. Reserve your spot in an upcoming free Toddler Sleep Masterclass. >>CLICK HERE<<