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Helping your child manage nightmares

Nearly all children have bad dreams at some point. They tend to peak in the preschool years when fears of the dark are common. It is helpful for parents to know how to promote restful sleep and to help your child cope with bad dreams when they occur.

Dreams and nightmares occur during the active time of sleep when the brain is processing images and emotions. This stage of sleep is called REM, for rapid eye movement, because the eyes move rapidly behind the eye lids. Nightmares tend to happen during the second half of sleep when there are longer periods of REM sleep.

By preschool age, most children realize that nightmares are dreams—that what they picture is not really happening and will not hurt them. However, the child may still react with fear and want comfort from a parent because the emotions are so intense.

Promoting Healthy Sleep

Parents can help prevent nightmares by promoting healthy sleep patterns with the following behaviors:

  • Having a regular bedtime and a regular time to wake up

  • Developing a routine before bed that is predictable and calming, such as taking a bath, reading together, having a snuggle time.

  • Having a soft, comfortable object that serves as a security object that provides comfort when parents are not there

  • Using books to promote relaxation and imagery such as “Perry’s Star” by Suzie Chase-Botzkin

  • Avoiding watching scary movies particularly before bed. It is best to avoid scary movies altogether as children processes these differently from adults, and have difficulty determining that what they are viewing is not real

After a Nightmare

  • Provide reassurance

Let your child know that you are there for them and will help take care of them.

  • Label what happened

Tell them that they had a nightmare and although it was scary, it was not real. And that now that they are awake, the nightmare is over.

  • Offer them comfort

Remind them that many children have nightmares and it is natural to feel scared and upset.

  • Distract them

Rather than discussing what happened in their nightmare, help distract them instead. Have your child wash their face, remind them of fun things that will happen tomorrow, plan a fun thing to do at breakfast. You can discuss the details of the nightmare tomorrow when they are calmer.

  • Help them relax

Help them relax their bodies, give their feet a massage, think of a calming, fun time. Read an imaginative story or use a bedtime book to help them visualize something positive like “Indigo Dreams” by Lori Lite.

  • Use magic

Young children may respond well to imaginative solutions such as creating a “monster spray” that keeps bad things away.

Handling repeated nightmares

Older children and teens can create different endings to their repetitive nightmares. During the day while they feel safe and calm, children may write out their nightmares then change the outcome before anything bad happens. Encourage them to use as many creative solutions as possible. (For example, they could develop superhero powers to escape or fight off aggressors.) As long as your child can imagine it, the new ending will be possible. Then before bed, your child can rehearse the new nightmare with the changed ending. Younger children who may have difficulty writing could use pictures to draw a new ending to their nightmare. Then they could place it in a visible location beside their beds.