When your toddler has scary dreams

Even though nightmares are common, that doesn’t make them any less scary. When Baby wakes up from a nightmare they will probably be pretty spooked. The good news is that with a little bit of work, you’ll be able to reassure Baby that they are safe and that everything is going to be okay.

You probably get scary dreams from time to time, so you know that even adults can have a hard time waking up from them. Unfortunately, they’re also difficult to prevent. The best thing you can do is respond quickly and empathetically when Baby wakes up from a nightmare, and if they keep having them, it’s time to come up with ways to try and improve their sleep and decrease bad dreams.

Nightmares 101

The exact cause of nightmares is unknown, but parents can sometimes figure out certain things that trigger their child’s scary dreams. For example, scary dreams might happen when a child goes through a life change, feels stressed, or after they reads or see something scary in a book or movie.

You might notice some continuing, real-life themes in Baby‘s dreams. While Baby sleeps, their brain gets a chance to explore thoughts and situations that don’t come up in regular daily life. As they grow and their imagination gets better, their dreams become more vivid and realistic.

To the rescue!

As soon as you notice Baby having a bad dream, go to them and start comforting them. If Baby needs to cry or scream, let them, but reassure them that they are safe and protected, that nothing will happen to them, that they were having a bad dream, and that you’ll stay until they feel safe.

Physical touch is important, too; it’s really reassuring for children to be held by their parents after a nightmare.

Dream team: preventing future nightmares

If Baby has been having some scary dreams as of late, these tactics may help them start to sleep a little more peacefully.

  • Bedtime routine: Routines can be comforting for toddlers, and if your family’s routine has been a little disturbed or disorganized lately, it may be time to reset it to something more predictable. Set a regular time for bed, and help Baby get into the habit of winding down for sleep before closing their eyes or trying to drift off, so that when they do sleep, they are calm and relaxed.
  • A night light: If the dark scares Baby, they may be falling asleep feeling afraid and unsettled. By putting a small light in Baby‘s room so that they isn&;t completely in the dark at night, you can help to reassure them while still keeping the dim lighting in the room that encourages sleep. Leaving their bedroom door open, with a light on in the hall, can have the same effect, as well as reminding Baby that you’re nearby.
  • Less scary stuff: Now that Baby is old enough to understand media a little better, it may start to have a stronger effect on them. If Baby has been exposed to scary movies and books recently, switching out the scary movies and books and replacing them with gentler stuff could help limit the scary images in their mind that their brain has to draw on in dreams.
  • Comfort object: A blanket, stuffed animal, or favorite toy can all serve as comfort objects for Baby; they will be able to focus on the comfort object instead of the thoughts that are making them feel afraid.
  • Check-ins: Agree to check up on Baby a few times at night. Obviously, you don’t want to make it so that Baby is completely dependent on you checking up multiple times in the night, but agreeing to check in after they go to bed might help them fall asleep faster.
  • Rewards: Now that Baby is older, and more able to understand ideas like delayed gratification, you can set up a system where Baby gets stars or stickers on nights when they are able to fall asleep without your help. After a certain number of stars or stickers, reward them with a treat or gift.

Processing and self-soothing

In the daytime, talk about Baby‘s dreams with them. By asking what their dream was about, and reassuring Baby that in real life, everything would be okay, you’re giving them a chance to tap into the various fears that formed the basis for their nightmares. Bringing the specific worries or fears to light will make them a lot less scary next time Baby thinks about them.

  • “Nightmares.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, Jul 2013. Available at http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/nightmare.html#.
  • “Children and Bedtime Fears and Nightmares.” SleepFoundation. National Sleep Foundation, Jun 2010. Available at https://sleepfoundation.org/ask-the-expert/children-and-bedtime-fears-and-nightmares.
  • “Using Objects to Reduce Anxiety.” HealthyPlace. Healthy Place, Nov 2014. Available at https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2014/11/using-objects-to-reduce-anxiety/.

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