Nightmares are scary dreams that can wake a child leaving him or her upset and in need of comfort. They are very common in children and often a part of normal development. After a nightmare that results in an awakening, most children are afraid to go back to sleep and often do not want to be left alone. Very young children do not know the difference between a dream and reality, so when they wake up, they may not understand the concept that they were only dreaming and it is now over. They may keep insisting that something scary is about to occur.
Nightmares are most common between the ages of 6 to 10, but both younger and older children also experience nightmares. Most children experience nightmares infrequently, but others do on a frequent basis. Before the age of 12, boys and girls are equally likely to have nightmares. After the age of 12, nightmares are more common in girls.
What do children have nightmares about?
Most young toddlers have concerns about being separated from their parents, so they may have a nightmare about being lost or having something happen to one of their parents. Nightmares in older children and adolescents often involve some type of imminent harm. Nightmares also typically include something that is scary or frightening, but can also include other negative feelings like embarrassment or disgust.
Nightmares also are more likely to happen following a difficult event. For some children, nightmares may also be the reliving of a traumatic event or related to scary movies or stories.
How can you reduce the likelihood of nightmares?
There are several things that you can do to help reduce the likelihood of nightmares:
- Avoid scary stories, television shows or movies before bedtime: These will increase the likelihood of your child having a nightmare. Instead, choose a comforting bedtime routine.
- Identify stressors: If there is something in your child's life that you know is distressing, try to take care of it and reassure your child. If your child suddenly experiences a significant increase in the frequency or intensity of nightmares, try to evaluate why that is happening. Look for recurring themes that could give you a clue as to the cause and deal with the problem.
- Ensure that your child is getting enough sleep: Children are much more likely to have nightmares after not getting enough sleep. If your child is having nightmares, make sure that he or she is getting enough sleep as this can help decrease both the frequency and the intensity of nightmares.
How should you respond to your child's nightmares?
If your child has a nightmare, there are a few things that you should do:
- Offer reassurance: The best thing that you can do if your child has a nightmare is provide comfort. For babies and young toddlers, holding them and providing physical comfort is enough. For older children, verbal reassurance may also be needed. Following most nightmares, your child will be reassured by a few minutes of comfort. Stay in the room with them, providing assurance that you are nearby and will make sure they are safe and secure.
- Give your child a security object: Helping a child become attached to a security object that can stay in bed with him or her can be beneficial. This often helps a child feel more relaxed throughout the night.
- Leave a light on: If your child insists on having a light on, put it on the dimmest setting possible so that your child can fall back to sleep.
- Discuss it the next day: The next day, you may want to try and talk to your child about the nightmare to see if there is anything bothering him or her, particularly if the nightmares are frequent. Most of the time, nightmares are isolated events with little meaning.
- Draw the nightmare: Have your child imagine different endings to his or her nightmare and have him or her draw the new dream with a good ending.
If your child's nightmares are severe, meaning that they are interfering in their life or occurring on a very frequent basis, speak to your child's physician.