Handling your toddler’s nightmares

Toddlers find lots of reasons to wake up in the middle of the night, and at this stage, you’re probably pretty used to drowsily settling Baby back to sleep. But when they have a bad dream, chances are they're going to need a little extra TLC.

Nightmares are unsettling for anyone, but for young children who have trouble telling a scary dream from reality, they can be downright terrifying. The jury is still out on what causes nightmares, but here’s what’s known:

  • According to the National Sleep Foundation, nightmares are most common during what is known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
  • Babies and young children experience REM just like adults do, and their REM cycles occur more often, increasing the chances of having a bad dream.
  • REM cycles get longer through the night, so nightmares usually occur in the second half of the night.

Possible reasons for bad dreams

The exact cause of nightmares is unknown, but young children may be more likely to have a bad dream in one or more of the following situations.

  • Disruption of the normal routine: If Baby’s regular bedtime routine has been different lately, they may be overtired, which increases the chances of nightmares.
  • Illness: Children who are sick, particularly with a fever, are more prone to bad dreams.
  • Trauma or stress: A disturbing event can certainly affect a young child’s slumber, and they may end up reliving and processing it in their dreams. Major events like the birth of a new sibling or going to a new school can make children feel stressed, which can have an effect on their sleep.

How to comfort your child after a nightmare

  • Acknowledge the fear: Monsters and other toddler fears can seem silly to adults, but for children, the fear is very real. Try not to diminish your toddler’s feelings by dismissing their bad dreams.
  • Be hands-on: For Baby, there’s nothing more comforting than their parent or caregiver. Offer up lots of hugs and snuggles after a bad dream to help them feel safe.
  • Don’t rush: Being up in the middle of the night is no picnic, and an upset toddler may not be a picture-perfect picnic-companion, but staying with Baby until they drift back to sleep could help give them sweet dreams through the rest of the night.

Nightmares or sleep terrors?

Sleep terrors are different than nightmares, and can be characterized by the following:

  • Kicking or thrashing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sleepwalking
  • Screaming

Unlike a child who has experienced a nightmare, those having a sleep terror may be difficult to rouse, and also may have limited recollection of the dream. Night terrors are uncommon, and are even more rare in children younger than 4, so most disrupted sleep in children Baby’s age just comes from more garden-variety nightmares. If you are concerned your child may have a sleep disorder, contact their pediatrician.

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Sleep terrors (Night terrors).” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, August 12 2014. Web.
  • “Nightmares and Sleep.” Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation, 2017. Web.

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