What Do I Do When My Child Has a Nightmare?

By: Jenn Kelner, CPA, CA
Certified Child Sleep Consultant
BabyZzz

Nightmares are normal and are very common in younger children. Nightmares are scarier versions of regular dreams, occurring during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Nightmares usually happen in the second half of the night since REM sleep is more frequent during this time. The child usually remembers the nightmare when they wake up, and can talk about it in detail.

If your child has a nightmare, respond to them right away, reassure them and try to calm them down. Give them a cuddle and with a calm voice remind them that it was just a
dream and not reality. It often helps to have them talk about the dream to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. To take your child’s mind off the dream, give them some pleasant thoughts to think about instead.

When your child has had a nightmare, try not to create new sleep associations by giving them milk in the night, bringing them into your bed, or sleeping in their bed for the rest of the night. You want to validate their fears and calm them down in a loving way, but if you introduce too much positive reinforcement, they will be more likely to have another nightmare the next night, or at least tell you they’ve had one. You want to bend the rules, but try not to break them.

What causes nightmares? Not getting enough sleep often causes nightmares because the body cycles through more REM sleep when it’s short on sleep. Too much stimulation from caffeine and electronics right before bed can also cause more nightmares. Try to avoid exposing your child to frightening tv shows or video games, and even the evening news may be enough to worry or scare your child. Avoiding any form of electronics 1-2 hours before bed will help. You may also want to put a night light in your child’s room, but the small amount of light may cast scary shadows!

If you think your child might be having a night terror instead, your child will appear awake but actually be asleep. Night terrors usually occur in the first half of the night, and the same time each night if they happen frequently. They occur during brief arousals between sleep stages when these arousals don’t go smoothly. The child is stuck between an awake state and an asleep state, where they are trying to wake up but can’t completely, creating this confusional event. Not getting enough sleep is usually the cause of night terrors as well, so get your child to bed a little earlier.

Nightmares are normal and are very common in younger children. Nightmares are scarier versions of regular dreams, occurring during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Nightmares usually happen in the second half of the night since REM sleep is more frequent during this time. The child usually remembers the nightmare when they wake up, and can talk about it in detail.

If your child has a nightmare, respond to them right away, reassure them and try to calm them down. Give them a cuddle and with a calm voice remind them that it was just a
dream and not reality. It often helps to have them talk about the dream to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. To take your child’s mind off the dream, give them some pleasant thoughts to think about instead.

When your child has had a nightmare, try not to create new sleep associations by giving them milk in the night, bringing them into your bed, or sleeping in their bed for the rest of the night. You want to validate their fears and calm them down in a loving way, but if you introduce too much positive reinforcement, they will be more likely to have another nightmare the next night, or at least tell you they’ve had one. You want to bend the rules, but try not to break them.

Sleep

What causes nightmares? Not getting enough sleep often causes nightmares because the body cycles through more REM sleep when it’s short on sleep. Too much stimulation from caffeine and electronics right before bed can also cause more nightmares. Try to avoid exposing your child to frightening tv shows or video games, and even the evening news may be enough to worry or scare your child. Avoiding any form of electronics 1-2 hours before bed will help. You may also want to put a night light in your child’s room, but the small amount of light may cast scary shadows!

If you think your child might be having a night terror instead, your child will appear awake but actually be asleep. Night terrors usually occur in the first half of the night, and the same time each night if they happen frequently. They occur during brief arousals between sleep stages when these arousals don’t go smoothly. The child is stuck between an awake state and an asleep state, where they are trying to wake up but can’t completely, creating this confusional event. Not getting enough sleep is usually the cause of night terrors as well, so get your child to bed a little earlier.