It’s not clear at what age kids begin to dream, but even toddlers may speak about having dreams — pleasant ones and scary ones. While almost every child has an occasional frightening or upsetting dream, nightmares seem to peak during the preschool years when fear of the dark is common. But older kids (and even adults) have occasional nightmares, too. Nightmares aren’t completely preventable, but parents can set the stage for a peaceful night’s rest. That way, when nightmares do creep in, a little reassurance and comfort from you can quickly restore your child’s peace of mind.
What Causes Nightmares?
Most times, nightmares occur for no apparent reason. Other times, they happen when a child is experiencing stress or change. Events or situations that might feel unsettling — such as moving, attending a new school, the birth of a sibling or family tensions — might also be reflected in unsettling dreams.
Sometimes nightmares occur as part of a child’s reaction to trauma — such as a natural disaster, accident or injury. For some kids, especially those with a good imagination, reading scary books or watching scary movies or TV shows just before bedtime can inspire nightmares.
Help your Child Cope after a Nightmare
Reassure your child that you’re there. Your calm presence helps your child feel safe and protected after waking up feeling afraid. Knowing you’ll be there helps strengthen your child’s sense of security.
Offer comfort. Show that you understand that your child feels afraid and it’s OK. Remind your child that everyone dreams and sometimes the dreams are scary, upsetting, and can seem very real, so it’s natural to feel scared by them.
Do your magic. With preschoolers and young school-age kids who have vivid imaginations, the magical powers of your love and protection can work wonders. You might be able to make the pretend monsters disappear with a dose of pretend monster spray. Go ahead and check the closet and under the bed, reassuring your child that all’s clear.
Help your child go back to sleep. Try any of these to aid the transition back to sleep: a favorite stuffed animal to hold, a blanket, pillow, nightlight, dreamcatcher, or soft music. Or discuss some pleasant dreams your child would like to have. And maybe seal it by giving your child a kiss to hold — in the palm of his or her hand — as you tiptoe out of the room.
For most kids, nightmares happen only now and then, are not cause for concern, and simply require a parent’s comfort and reassurance. Talk to your doctor if nightmares often prevent your child from getting enough sleep or if they occur along with other emotional or behavioral troubles.Encouraging Sweet Dreams
Parents can’t prevent nightmares, but can help kids get a good night’s sleep — and that encourages sweet dreams.
To help them relax when it’s time to sleep and associate bedtime with safety and comfort, be sure that kids:
- Have a regular bedtime and wake-up time
- Have a sleep routine that helps them slow down, and feel safe and secure as they drift off to sleep. This might include a bath, a snuggle from you, reading, or some quiet talk about the pleasant events of the day.
- Have a bed that’s a cozy, peaceful place to quiet down. A favorite toy, stuffed animal, nightlight, or dream catcher can help.
- Avoid scary movies, TV shows, and stories before bed — especially if they’ve triggered nightmares before
- Know that nightmares aren’t real, that they’re just dreams and can’t hurt them
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