Children’s Nightmares, Why They Happen And How To Deal With Them

by | September 4, 2018

Nightmares are something that nearly everyone will deal with at some point in their lives, be it the dreaded showing up to school naked one, the being chased and your legs suddenly decide you can’t run, or that you’re stuck in a horror movie. But what about children’s nightmares? Why do they happen and how do you comfort your child?

If your child wakes up during the middle of the night fearful or crying chances are they’ve had a nightmare. These scary episodes usually happen during the second half of the night, when your child is more likely to be dreaming. Children may remember the bad dream the next day and continue to be bothered or scared by it.

Nightmares and night terrors are two different things and shouldn’t be confused. Night terrors are a less common occurrence and usually happen during the first third of the night. Children having a night terror episode usually remain asleep throughout, in a deep non-dreaming state, but can be extremely agitated and hard to console. They usually go back to sleep afterward and don’t remember the incident in the morning. 


Why do children’s nightmares happen?

Most children will get nightmares once in a while, but two to four-year-olds are particularly prone to them. This is the age where normal fears develop, their imagination explodes, and their ability to describe their bad dreams kicks into high gear due to their exploding vocabulary. 

There are a number of things that can cause children’s nightmares including listening to a story they may find scary (even if you don’t), watching an upsetting movie or tv show, getting excited or overly worked up before bed, or general feelings of anxiety or stress throughout the day.

Many things can cause stress in children, which in turn may lead to nightmares. For a two to four-year-old things including toilet training, moving to a big kid bed, changes in childcare, starting preschool etc. For a child to be working through these feelings of anxiety and stress, having nightmares is a perfectly normal response, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.


How to help your child relax after a nightmare

When your child wakes up n the middle of the night after having a nightmare it’s important to go to them and console them. Physical reassurance is important so hug them or rub their back until they have started to calm down. Be wary of bringing your child into your bed to console them as this may create a habit that is hard to reverse.

Console them verbally, let them know ‘it’s only a dream’, although this may not mean much to younger children as they are just beginning to realize the difference between dreams and reality. Let them tell you about their nightmare if they want to, but don’t push it. 

You may also want to show your child that there are no monsters under their bed, or in the closet. Don’t make it too much of a big deal however, as this could overstimulate them which will make it even harder to get them back to sleep. Make sure their favorite teddy is tucked in with them and if they have a nightlight, that it is turned on. Remind them that you are down the hall and assure them everyone in the house is ok.

Preventing nightmares

It’s not 100% foolproof, but having a good, peaceful bedtime routine can help to ward off nightmares. Choosing bedtime stories carefully and avoiding books with potentially frightening themes or pictures is a good way to start. 

Some children can feel better if they attempt to take control of a scary situation. Here are a few little tricks to try:

  • Make a dream-catcher out of pipe cleaners and hang it over their bed. The idea is that the dream-catcher with catch all the bad dreams and only let good ones through. 
  • Fill a spray bottle with water scented with a couple drops of vanilla extract, and let your child spray a little of this ‘monster repellent’ around their room at night.
  • Let them rub a little moisturizer or face cream on their forehead at night to make sure only good dreams can happen.

If you think its anxiety or stress that may be causing your children’s nightmares, try talking to them about what may be bothering them during the daytime. If their nightmares continue and they’re fearful of going to bed it may be a good idea to bring it up with your doctor. The bad dreams could signal some emotional issue that needs to be addressed.

Children's nightmares


Alex Jones

Associate Editor, USA | Contactable via [email protected]


Categories: Parenting, Toddlers


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