Children and Nightmares: Help Your Little Ones Sleep Better

Scary dreams have kept many a parent up comforting their child in the wee hours of the night. What can be done to help your child sleep better?

By Sheryl Grassie

Bad dreams can be a serious problem for children when it comes to sleep. Children can deal with nightmares, night terrors, scary dreams, hearts racing, screaming, waking in the middle of the night, and fear of falling asleep. Many parents battle with their children’s frightening dreams, and the resulting inability to sleep through the night.

Children and Nightmares: A Little Background

Nightmares are defined as a fear-inducing dream. In children especially, they can cause intensified breathing and accelerated heart rate that mimics the fight or flight response and adds to the feeling of being afraid. These bad dreams generally happen in the second half of sleep, during rapid eye movement sleep called REM. They are vivid and easy to recall. Nightmares are a relatively common occurrence with up to 50% of children experiencing them at one time or another.

Historically, bad dreams have been around for a long time. There are references in Greek mythology to a god called Epiales: the god of nighttime dream demons. In 1150-1500 CE, during the Middle English period, the term “nightmare” was coined. There were similar names in German, “nachtmahr” and Dutch, “nachtmerrie,” referring to dreams as a strong negative emotion.

Wikipedia explains the term nightmare as coming from Old English and further explains the term “mare” as meaning “a mythological demon or goblin who torments others with frightening dreams.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines nightmare, again coming from Middle English, as “denoting a female evil spirit thought to lie upon and suffocate sleepers.”

Any way you look at it, people have been afraid of something that appears in their dreams for centuries. Children, most specifically younger children like toddlers, don’t have the capacity to differentiate between their real life and the make-believe of their dreams; this can make their nightmares especially frightening.

Common Themes in Nightmares

The vivid dreams that children have, when negative and scary, can be incredibly intense. Interestingly, they have common themes across populations of children.

Security Dreams

Young childhood is a time for building security and learning to trust the world. When life is unpredictable and not secure, children can process their fears through dreams of being separated from Mom and Dad, being lost, or losing a loved one.

Threatening Dreams

These can take the form of scary creatures, animals, witches, or clowns acting in threatening ways. Children will describe something as, “Trying to get me” or “Trying to hurt me.”

Frightening Images

As children age, their bad dreams often contain upsetting images from television, movies, video games, or other media. This is a way of processing content that is too harsh and may indicate a need to monitor the content a child is exposed to.

I remember watching a movie when I was seven or eight years old about a primitive culture throwing people into big pits of fire. That movie, which was way too mature for me at the time, gave me nightmares for years to come of people being thrown into pits of fire. Try to keep content age appropriate for happier dreams.

Where Do Nightmares Come From?

There is no clear and ubiquitous answer to the question, “Where do nightmares come from?” There are a number of suspected reasons and contributing factors that help explain why a child might have a disturbing dream verses having a pleasant dream. Some of these factors are tangible and related to the environment; others may be psychological, subconscious, and intangible. It is not uncommon, however, not to know the reason why your child has nightmares. Here are some possibilities to consider.

Not Enough Sleep

Being overtired or not getting enough sleep seems to have an effect on the occurrence of nightmares. There is a correlation between the two, so check to make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Toddlers need 11-14 hours per day, preschoolers need 11-13 hours per day, and school age children need 9-11 hours per day.

Irregular Bedtime and Irregular Routines

Especially when children are young, but really throughout childhood, children need routine and consistency to build security. When security is threatened by too much change or inconsistency, children can’t count on things, and it can cause nightmares.

Reaction to Trauma

This can include both physical and psychological occurrences: a grandparent dies, a pet is lost, a favorite toy goes missing, an accident happens, or an emotionally upsetting event occurs such as a move or a major change like a divorce. These can all trigger nightmares.

Stress

Cited as one of the most common reasons for childhood nightmares, when children experience acute or chronic stress in their daily lives it can trigger dark and scary dreams.

Psychological Processing

Many experts believe that dreams in general, whether good or bad, are a way of processing our experiences. Children don’t have the cognitive or verbal skills to adequately process things during their waking life, and nightmares may be their way of processing the subconscious stress, traumas, and unknowns that happen during the day.

Inappropriate Content and Upsetting Images

When an image is too violent or too threatening for a child, they will sometimes process it through a nightmare. This is more common in older children ages 6-11, as they have developed the capacity to more directly relate to subconsciously stored content.

Medications and Illness

Certain types of medications and certain illnesses, primarily those that have an associated fever, can cause a nightmare. It is not uncommon when children have the flu or a high fever for them to have very scary dreams and need Mom and Dad by their sides. Medications like allergy medicines are linked to nightmares as well.

How To Help Your Child With Nightmares

Since nightmares are not considered to be abnormal unless they become frequent or too intense, parents can usually deal with them at home through a number of do-it-yourself strategies. If the nightmares do become problematic, you can get support from your doctor or a psychologist. If they are infrequent, and mild to moderate, try some of the following:

  • First and foremost comfort them when they have a nightmare. Acknowledge that it must be really scary, but that you will always take care of them. If they are older, you can reinforce that dreams are not real.
  • Give your child a security object like a stuffed animal, blanket, or night light.
  • Make sure they are getting adequate sleep.
  • Practice a consistent bedtime routine, going to bed at the same time daily.
  • Help your child go to bed happy. Tell them a joke, emphasize how much you love them, and help them feel really good before they fall asleep.
  • Limit violent or scary television and movies.
  • Teach relaxation, like deep breathing, so children can put themselves back to sleep.
  • Discuss the nightmare during the day. Talk about the images specifically and demystify them. “Clowns aren’t really scary in real life…”
  • Address any stress going on in your child’s life.
  • Create a safety ritual like placing a dream catcher above the head of the bed, or saying a prayer for protection before going to sleep, in order to “stop” the bad dreams.
  • Create a reward program for older children where they get points towards something they want if they can manage the dream and put themselves back to sleep.
  • Use a cognitive approach, again with older children, where you read about nightmares and what they mean, or talk to them about changing the outcome of their dream by creating a different ending.

If none of these work, it is recommended you keep a sleep diary on your child. Give it at least a couple of weeks where you record bedtime, length of sleep, stress, and nightmares and their content. Then, if you need to seek professional help, you will have information that the doctor needs to properly intervene.


Summary

Nightmares are common for children and may be a way of processing events and circumstances in their lives. They are not necessarily a sign of something wrong, but if you and your child are losing sleep try some of our tips to create sweet dreams.


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