Strategies for preventing and coping with nightmares

Whether it’s monsters under the bed, the neighbor’s loud dog, or something about spaghetti that you’re never fully able to explain the scariness of, it’s rare to get through an entire childhood without having a single nightmare, and Baby is entering prime nightmare-having age. Children’s nightmares are usually a little less scary from the parenting side than they are during toddlerhood, but they involve just about as much missed sleep, and a lot more sympathy, so even if your little one hasn’t had her first scary dream, it can be helpful to have a nightmare plan in mind just in case.

Why do nightmares happen?

It’s not entirely clear why nightmares occur, although like all dreams, they’re often thought to be a way of processing emotions and information. Like all dreams, nightmares happen during REM sleep, and usually occur in the second half of the night. When toddlers wake up right after nightmares, they tend to remember them fairly well, though very young toddlers still may not be able to communicate much about them.

Many nightmares can be linked to stress during the daytime, but in other cases, there may be no easily identifiable cause at all. The subjects that nightmares are about are occasionally influenced by events that have happened to children, but are much more often influenced by stories they’ve heard or images they’ve seen.

Responding to nightmares

There are two different parts of responding to nightmares: the immediate response, and the more long-term strategy for trying to make sure nightmares don’t happen again. In the short term, most children fall back asleep fairly quickly after a nightmare, once they’ve been reassured. It’s important to remember that very young children may not have much of a framework for thinking about dreams, and nightmares can feel very real to them.

Listening to anything your toddler might have to tell you about a nightmare, and then reassuring her that the dream is over can help to comfort her in a way that just telling her that it wasn’t real might not. Not only can saying “it wasn’t real” sound like a dismissal of what may have been a very scary experience, but she may not feel like she can believe you. Magical thinking, or a belief in cause and effect that isn’t tied to logic, is common at Baby’s age, and while it can be part of the problem, and can make nightmares feel like reality, it can also be a part of the solution. Magical thinking is the reason why toddlers may still be afraid after nightmares have ended, but they’re also the reason why parents can have some success reassuring them with “monster spray,” or other made-up ways of warding off nightmares.

For more long-term anti-nightmare strategy, it can be helpful to address the problem from a few different directions.

  • During the day: At night, after Baby has a nightmare, listening to her tell you what she dreamed about can be part of the process as you soothe her back to sleep, but aside from that, it’s often not the best time for an involved discussion that gets to the bottom of her fear. Bad dreams have been linked with stress during waking hours, so figuring out whether there’s something going on in her life that’s troubling her can be helpful, whether that means making sure she feels safe and secure at her new daycare, or just introducing her to the loud dog next door so she can find out that Fluffy isn’t so scary in person. More than that, though, daytime is a good time to talk to Baby about what dreams are. Toddlers can form some strange ideas about dreams, and talking to her about dreams as her thoughts, separate from the reality of her day can help her start to think about scary dreams as something less immediately threatening.
  • At bedtime: Children with more regular bedtimes tend to have fewer bad dreams, and making sure that you have a relaxing winding-down routine before bed can help to make sure Baby falls asleep in a peaceful state of mind. Designating a stuffed animal or doll as Baby’s protector from nightmares, and then tucking it in with her can help keep her feeling reassured even once you leave the room, and if Baby can sleep well in a room with a dim night light, the low light can remind her that she is somewhere safe and familiar, both as she falls asleep to begin with and if she wakes up during the night.
  • Advanced skills: If scary dreams persist, you can start talking to Baby about the possibility of taking control of her dreams a little. You can talk to her about different ways a recurrent dream could end, or just more generally about the idea that maybe she can make changes inside her dreams.

If nightmares start to happen more and more often, or seem to be becoming more traumatic, or your child’s fears are getting in the way of her day to day life, consider talking to her pediatrician. They may recommend certain techniques for relaxation or desensitization.

  • Eileen Kennedy-Moore. “How to Help Kids with Nightmares.” PBS Parents. PBS, January 13. Web.
  • D’arcy Lyness. “Nightmares.” Kids Health. The Nemours Foundation, July 2013. Web.
  • Raising Children Network. “Bad dreams and nightmares in children.” Raising Children. Raising Children Network, July 19 2016. Web.
  • “Children and bedtime fears and nightmares.” Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation. Web.
  • “Nightmares.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic. Web.

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