By Dolores Smyth
Help Kids Cope with Nightmares
It’s a scene that rattles new parents and frustrates seasoned ones: your child screams from his bedroom in the middle of the night, startling you awake as you scramble to his room and find him sobbing and scared from a nightmare. Nightmares can wreak havoc on a household’s ability to get restful sleep and can make your child resist going to bed unless it’s in your bed, with the lights on.
While we can’t prevent nightmares altogether, we can take steps to better comfort our kids after nightmares and establish bedtime routines that experts believe reduce the frequency of nightmares.
What Are Nightmares?
A nightmare is a frightening dream involving an imagined danger that can cause children to wake up feeling distraught. While children as young as toddlers can have nightmares, experts note that nightmares generally start between the ages of 3 and 6 years old and often decrease after the age of 10.
Nightmares typically occur after the child has been asleep for several hours and is in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. During the REM stage, the brain is especially engaged in processing vivid images and new information. When a child wakes up from a nightmare during the REM stage, the bad dream’s alarming images are still fresh and seem real.
Nightmares differ from night terrors in that, with night terrors, the child thrashes about in the first few hours of sleep, is difficult to awaken, and exhibits little to no recollection of the episode causing the terror.
What Causes Nightmares?
The little research that has been done on children’s nightmares hasn’t pinpointed their cause. In fact, nightmares can occur despite having no discernible source. However, experts advise that certain factors may increase a child’s risk of nightmares, especially:
- A stressful situation or significant change at home or school
- An irregular sleep schedule
- Frightening shows, stories, or other upsetting stimuli
- A fever
- Certain medications
Tips to Comfort Your Child After a Nightmare
Experts encourage parents to do the following to soothe a scared child after a nightmare:
- Provide reassurance immediately. Children who wake up afraid from a nightmare need to know immediately that they’re safe and that the nightmare wasn’t real. Physical contact such as hugging can help reduce anxiety, as can sitting with your child in his room until he’s calm enough to fall back asleep.
- Conquer the darkness with light or a lovey. Dash your child’s nighttime fright by turning on a nightlight or installing a dimmer switch in her bedroom. Give your child a favorite teddy bear or blanket to hold to help her peacefully drift back to sleep.
- Don’t encourage your child’s belief in harmful imaginary beings. If your child is jittery about monsters and other make-believe beings, resist telling your child to use a magic wand or light saber to make the imaginary creature disappear. While such monster-slaying tactics provide temporary relief, they also confirm the monster’s existence and, thus, may exacerbate bedtime anxiety in the long-run.
- Give children a sense of control. Lessen your child’s nighttime distress by reading stories in which characters overcome their fear of nightmares. Further loosen a nightmare’s grip by drawing a picture of the scary image, tearing it up, and throwing it away.
- Use positive images to replace foreboding ones. Untangle a nightmare from your child’s thoughts by prompting your child to focus on positive imagery, such as memories of a fun trip or other enjoyable event.
Tips to Help Reduce the Frequency of Nightmares
To facilitate restful sleep and, in turn, help decrease the incidence of nightmares, experts give these tips to create a soothing bedtime atmosphere:
- Provide adequate sleep at a regular bedtime. Sleep-deprivation or irregular bedtimes are nightmare triggers.
- Wind down before bed. Sing soothing lullabies or read pleasant bedtime stories with your child before bed.
- Avoid upsetting stimuli at bedtime. Steer clear of alarming shows or movies during bedtime. Replace loud or agitating toys in your child’s room with a favorite stuffed animal and a nightlight. For older kids, hang a dreamcatcher above their bed and discuss the Native American belief behind the sleep aid.
- Discuss nightmares during the day. Depending on your child’s age, shining some daylight on a nightmare’s theme can uncover the stressors behind it. Once identified, help your child overcome those stressors and, hopefully, experience fewer nightmares.
Set the scene for sweeter dreams by making your little one’s bedtime a tranquil experience. Your child will get a better night’s sleep and, as a bonus, so will you.
Dolores Smyth is a mother of three who draws inspiration for her writing from everyday life. Her work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. Read more of her work @LolaWordSmyth.