Nightmares are scary dreams that wake us up and disrupt our sleep. Children can start having nightmares as young as 6 months, but they’re most common in children between the ages of 3 and 6. By supporting our children when they have nightmares and applying some prevention strategies, we can help them banish bad dreams.
According to research, about 50% of children will have nightmares at some point in their lives. Children may have nightmares for a variety of reasons, such as stress, anxiety, or changes in their environment. They may also be influenced by things they see or hear, such as scary movies or stories. Sometimes, it’s hard to know why a child has a nightmare. The most important thing is to support them when nightmares do happen and reassure them that they’re safe and loved.
Next time your child wakes up from a scary dream, here are a few strategies you can try:
When your child wakes up from a nightmare, they may be frightened, upset, and tearful. It can help to reassure them that they are safe, you are there for them and will protect them. Gently remind them that what they dreamed isn’t real and is just pretend.
Encourage your child to talk about their nightmare, and listen to their thoughts and feelings. This can help them process their emotions and understand their dreams better. This can also be a good time to reassure them that it’s OK to feel scared when they have bad dreams.
Comfort them with a warm hug, cuddles, listening to calming music, or another activity that helps soothe them back to sleep. When your child is ready, encourage them to go back to sleep. Try asking if they’d like to keep the door open or the light on. As much as possible, avoid having your child sleep with you after a nightmare. It can reinforce the idea that their room isn’t safe.
During the daytime, there are a few different strategies you can try to help prevent scary dreams from returning at night:
Talk with your child to figure out what they’re afraid of. Ask them open-ended questions, and listen to what they have to say. For example, you can ask what their scary dream was about or how they felt during the dream. You can try writing down your child’s fears on a piece of paper, and encourage them to rip it up!
Come up with happy or silly alternative endings to their nightmare. If your child loves superheroes, suggest that a superhero comes to save the day at the end of the bad dream. Ask them how they would want their dream to end.
For children at least 12 months and older, you can find a comfort item that they can sleep with to help them feel secure at night. For many children, this might be a stuffed animal or a blanket. A fun night light featuring their favorite character can also be helpful. Some children find comfort sleeping with a caregiver’s shirt that smells like them.
Create a comforting routine before bedtime that puts your child’s mind at ease. Warm baths, happy stories, and calming music can all help your child feel safe and comfortable.
Children often outgrow nightmares as they get older and their brains mature, but some children may continue to have nightmares into adulthood. If your child is having frequent or particularly disturbing nightmares that affect their daily life, it may be a good idea to talk to your pediatrician or a mental health professional.