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  • Jessica Berk

How to Help Toddlers with Nightmares

Most kids will experience a nightmare during childhood. As a parent, it can be tough because we don’t want our child to feel scared or distressed, and we want them to get a good night’s sleep.


So, what’s the best thing we can do? I’ve got some great tips for how to help toddlers with nightmares, including a few things we can do to try and prevent them from happening in the first place.

 

>>Watch this blog on my Awesome Little Sleepers YouTube channel! 👇



 

Why is my toddler having nightmares in the first place?


Nightmares can start in kids as young as 3 years old, as their brain is developing and their imagination is getting stronger and more active. The tips I’m going to give you will help your child in the moment when they wake up overnight, and also help you figure out how to prevent them from happening in the first place.


First, it’s important to understand what a lot of parents think is a nightmare but is not really a nightmare…


Nightmares can pop up every now and then, but it’s very unlikely that nightmares are going to be waking your child up every night, and certainly not multiple times a night. If you’re dealing with these frequent wake ups, it’s likely not a nightmare - check out this video: NIGHT WAKINGS | 3 year old Wakes Up at Night | Sleep Training

Nightmares versus night terrors


Before we jump in, I want to briefly mention 2 key differences between a nightmare and a night terror.


Night terrors can happen more frequently than nightmares. They usually happen earlier in the evening, before midnight, whereas nightmares happen in a different stage of sleep in the early hours of the morning.


The second difference is that with a nightmare, your child will typically calm down and be reassured once they see you and get some snuggles. But with a night terror, your child is deep asleep and won’t even know when you’ve entered the room.


If you need more info on how to distinguish between the two, check out this video: Toddler Nightmares vs. Night Terrors | Awesome Little Sleepers


How to help toddlers with nightmares: prevention


Now that you know whether your child is really having a nightmare, what can you do to help them?


The easiest thing is to prevent them from happening in the first place! Nightmares happen more frequently with kids who are overtired and not getting enough sleep. So, make sure they’re sleeping 10-12 hours a night.


A few other pre-bedtime things you can do as well:

  • Keep a consistent bedtime routine each night to help your child fall asleep quickly.

  • Talk about happy things before bed - the funniest thing that happened today, or who can make the silliest voice.

  • I love to plan “dream dates” with my kids - where we plan what we want to dream about and where we’ll meet in our dreams - at the Aquarium, at Disney World, on the moon.

Doing things like this helps your child fall asleep with good, calm, fun images in their head.


Now, in the moment when they wake up overnight distressed about something in a dream, what should you do?


The best thing is to stay calm and reassure them. Get them back to their bed, give them some snuggles or rub their back. Physical touch can be very comforting. Allow them to talk about the dream if they want, but don’t press them on it.


Consider turning on a dim nightlight if that’s helpful, but avoid turning on bright overhead lights or screens. Make sure they have their favorite lovey or blanket and their white noise machine so they feel cozy and safe in their room.


If they need more than a snuggle, try to distract them by talking about something positive - like a favorite show, a memory, or some fun upcoming plans. This helps get their mind focused on something else.


You can also encourage them to take some deep, slow breaths like they’re trying to blow up a big balloon. You can even tell a short, silly made up story to lighten the mood. But keep it brief. Your goal is to get out of their room quickly once they’re calm.


Nightmares are a great opportunity for kids to build self-reliance. As long as you do your job of reassuring them, it lets them know it’s okay to feel scared, but that it was just a dream, it’s over now, and they’re safe and cozy in their room.





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