Even toddlers may speak about having dreams — pleasant ones and scary ones.
Almost every child has an occasional frightening or upsetting dream. But nightmares
seem to peak during the preschool years when fear of the dark is common.
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 comfort from you can
quickly ease your child's mind.
When Do Nightmares Happen?
Nightmares — like most dreams — happen during the stage of sleep when
the brain is very active. The vivid images the brain is processing can seem as real
as the emotions they might trigger.
This part of sleep is known as the rapid eye movement or REM stage
because the eyes are rapidly moving beneath closed eyelids. Nightmares tend to happen
during the second half of a night's sleep, when REM periods are longer.
When kids awaken from a nightmare, its images are still fresh and can seem real.
So it's natural for them to feel afraid and upset and to call out to a parent for
By about preschool age, kids begin to understand that a nightmare is only a dream
— and that what's happening isn't real and can't hurt them. But knowing that
doesn't prevent them from feeling scared. Even older kids feel frightened when they
awaken from a nightmare.
What Causes Nightmares?
No one knows exactly what causes nightmares. Dreams — and nightmares —
seem to be one way kids process thoughts and feelings about situations they face,
and to work through worries and concerns.
Some may happen when a child has stress or is dealing with a 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
Sometimes nightmares are 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.
Sometimes a nightmare has recognizable bits and pieces
of the day's events and experiences, but with a scary twist. A child might not remember
every detail, but can usually recall some of the images, characters, or situations,
and the scary parts.
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, 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, night-light, 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
After a Nightmare
Here's how to 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.
Label what's happened. Let your child know that it was a nightmare
and now it's over. You might say something like, "You had a bad dream, but now you're
awake and everything is OK." Reassure your child that the scary stuff in the nightmare
didn't happen in the real world.
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
Mood lighting. A nightlight or a hall light can help kids feel
safe in a darkened room as they get ready to go back to sleep. A bedside flashlight
can be a good nightmare-chaser.
Help your child go back to sleep. Offering something comforting
might help change the mood. 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.
Be a good listener. No need to talk more than briefly about the
nightmare in the wee hours — just help your child feel calm, safe, and protected,
and ready to go back to sleep. But in the morning, your child may want to tell you
all about last night's scary dream. By talking about it — maybe even drawing
the dream or writing about it — in the daylight, many scary images lose their
power. Your child might enjoy thinking up a new (more satisfying) ending to the scary
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 happen along with other
emotional or behavioral troubles.