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Responding to Nightmares

Did you have nightmares as a kid? Even if you don’t remember having them, chances are you probably did. And, for some of us, our childhood nightmares were so powerful that we still remember them to this day!

Childhood nightmares are common in children 3-5 years old. With changes to their routine (starting in preschool or daycare) and growing an ever-expanding imagination, preschoolers may start processing their feelings through their dreams, including nightmares.

It can be difficult for parents to know what to do when they find their child upset after a nightmare. This week, we offer suggestions to help you support your child to calm down after a nightmare, as well as ways to set the stage for a good night’s sleep.

Understanding nightmares

There are several stages of sleep a person goes through during the course of the night. Nightmares happen during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep when our brain activity is heightened. The images children see and emotions they experience during a dream or nightmare feel very real. It can be startling to wake from a nightmare with those images and feelings still fresh in their minds.

Scientists and researchers can’t say for sure what causes nightmares, but they do tend to agree that certain factors can influence whether a child may be more sensitive to experiencing nightmares:

Experiencing change, whether it’s a new house or school, or changes to the family dynamic, such as a new sibling or a separation.

  • Reacting to trauma, such as an injury, natural disaster, etc.
  • Watching or reading something scary before bedtime.
  • Having a frightening experience, such as seeing scary Halloween decorations at the store.

The Sleep Foundation reminds us that nightmares are a normal part of a child’s development. As preschooler’s imaginations are developing, children also start realizing that there are things in the world that can hurt them. As a parent, the best thing you can do is comfort your child when they wake from a nightmare.

Comfort is key when responding to nightmares

When your child wakes from a nightmare, they are going to feel scared, maybe even a little confused as their brain shifts from dreamland back to reality. The emotions and imagery they experienced in their dream will still be fresh on their minds. As a parent, your role is to provide a safe place for your child to regroup and settle back into slumber. It’s important to:

  • Be patient with your child. Showing anger or frustration over being woken up can make your child feel even more upset.
  • Remain calm and use a soft, soothing voice. Reassure your child that you are there for them.
  • Give lots of snuggles and encouraging words.
  • During the day, when your child is calm, talk about the difference between dreams and awake time. Help them understand that even though they seem real, a dream cannot hurt them.

Different calming strategies work for different kids. Over time, you’ll find what works best for your child, and what works with one child may not help their sibling.

Calming strategies could include:

  • Use a nightlight or dim light in your child’s sleep space.
  • Sing soothing songs to your child, such as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”
  • Give your child a special security item, like a blanket or stuffed animal.
  • Hang a dream catcher over the bed to “trap bad dreams,” or “catch good dreams.”
  • Read calming books together about sleep, such as Sleep Train, Dream Train, The Book of Sleep, or Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site.

Use a bedtime routine to settle into slumber

Many children do well with a consistent bedtime routine. Knowing what’s coming next—whether it’s a snack, bath time, or books—can reduce anxiety your child might be feeling around bedtime. A sample bedtime routine could be:

  • Bath time
  • Pick out pajamas
  • Brush teeth
  • Read 3 stories
  • Lights out for bed

Other things to consider at bedtime include:

  • Avoid watching or reading anything scary before bedtime.
  • Turn off all screens an hour before bedtime.
  • Choose calm and quiet activities before bed, rather than games and toys that are overstimulating. Choices could include: puzzles, soft dough, sorting games, etc.
  • Avoid sugary snacks or drinks before bed. Instead, offer a snack with protein, which helps promote better sleep.

While most children grow out of nightmares eventually, if you have concerns about the frequency or intensity of your child’s nightmares, make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to discuss your concerns. With your support, your child can grow through their nightmares.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).


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