Almost every child has an occasional frightening or upsetting dream. It can be heart breaking. You hear a scared cry coming from your toddler’s room, and you rush in to see what’s going on. He seems super scared and just asks you to get rid of the monsters. Toddlers often have a hard time separating reality from imagination, so the best thing you can do is reassure him and hold him for a while. Nightmares seem to peak during the preschool years when fear of the dark is common.

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are scary dreams. Those dreams occur during the stage of sleep when the brain is very active – the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Longer phases of REM sleep usually does not occur until the second half of the night. That is why nightmares mostly are experienced in the late night or early morning. If your child wakes up anxious before midnight, it is more likely that it is a night terror. Sometimes a nightmare has recognizable bits of the day’s events and experiences, but with a scary twist. When children wake up from a nightmare, the images are still there and can appear very real to your child. So it ’s likely that your child is scared and upset. Nightmares can start when the child is about two years old, and reach a peak between the ages of three and six years. Approximately 70% of preschool-age children experience nightmares.

What is the difference between night terrors and nightmares?

Nightmares are often confused with night terrors, but aren’t the same. Night terrors (or night fears or pavor nocturnus) occur during non-REM sleep, in the first part of the night. It’s common that your child wakes up screaming in the beginning of the night and your child seems awake when you’re with him. But he doesn’t respond to anything nor recognizes you. He doesn’t like to be touched and might push you away. It looks scary, the sound your child makes seems like something really bad has happened. After 5-15 minutes it is over and your child will fall back to sleep quite easily. The next morning your child doesn’t remember anything, whereas a nightmare will be remembered the next day. More about night terrors in a next blog.

What causes them and how to prevent?

No one knows exactly what causes nightmares, but it It could be a number of things. Dreams and nightmares seem to be a way for children to process thoughts, feelings, and events of the day. Many studies have found a strong link between scary dreams and daytime stress or anxiety. When something bad happened -recently or a little longer ago-, it can come back in a dream. Nightmares can be triggered by just about anything. A few common causes of nightmares may be:

• A new baby
• Preschool
• Change in routine
• Change or loss in the family
• A new home
• A new caretaker

Besides those external triggers, nightmares can also be caused by developmental changes, or simply triggered by everyday stress (like a fight with a sibling or not getting that ice cream). They aren’t completely preventable, but there are some simple things that we parents can do to minimize the risk of experiencing nightmares.

* Avoid triggers
It might seem an open door but try to avoid scary movies, television shows, video games, and books. Your child has trouble separating what is real and what isn’t, so watching scary movies is just not a good idea. And screen light will make bedtime harder, there’s a growing evidence that these electronics can fool our brains into thinking that it’s daytime, so remember to turn of any screens at least one hour before bedtime.

* Keep bedtime predictable
Predictability is the #1 factor that makes your toddlers world safe. So make sure that your toddler knows what to expect at bedtime. A predictable, soothing bedtime routine is a must with young children experiencing nightmares, night terrors or other sleep disruptions, it will help to minimize any fears and anxiety that your toddler may be feel but isn’t able to express.

* Talk about it during the day
Don’t start long conversations about it in middle of the night, when your child wakes up with a nightmare reassure him with a hug and some words that it’s safe to go back to sleep. Pick a moment during the day to alk to your toddler about his nightmares. Keep the conversation simple, you can ask your child about last night’s scary dreams and let him express his feelings. You will see that daylight makes scary images lose their strength. You can let your toddler close his eyes and ask him to ‘see’ images, and then talk about how the images are just in our imaginations, and not really there when we open our eyes.

* Rescript the end
A number of studies suggest that rewriting the dream has a positive effect on nightmares. Try to envision an alternate -more joyful- ending to your child’s dream, it will help him forget the bad part.

* Prevent over-tiredness
Sleep-deprived children more often experience nightmares (and night terrors!), make sure your child gets enough sleep during the day and pick a bedtime appropriate to the age of your child. Most young children go to bed between 6-8 pm and sleep 10-12 hours at night.

After a nightmare

Here’s how to help your child cope after a nightmare:
For most kids, nightmares happen only now and then, are not cause for concern, and simply require a parent’s comfort and reassurance. Talk to your doctor if nightmares often prevent your child from getting enough sleep or if they happen along with other emotional or behavioral troubles.

* Reassure your child that you’re there.
Your calm presence helps your child feel safe and protected after waking up feeling afraid. Knowing you’ll be there helps strengthen your child’s sense of security.

* Tell your child he’s safe
Explain your child that he or she had a nightmare and that it’s now over. That he is safe and mom/dad are there for him. You can say:, “Sweetie, you had a scary dream, but now you are awake and everything is fine. You are safe.” Explain that the scary things in the nightmare did not happen in our (real) world.

* Offer comfort.
Show that you understand that your child feels afraid and it’s OK. Remind your child that everyone dreams and sometimes the dreams are scary, upsetting, and can seem very real, so it’s natural to feel scared by them.

* Do your magic.
With preschoolers and young school-age kids who have vivid imaginations, the magical powers of your love and protection can work wonders. You might be able to make the pretend monsters disappear with a dose of pretend monster spray. Go ahead and check the closet and under the bed, reassuring your child that all’s clear.

* Help your child go back to sleep.
Offering something comforting might help change the mood. Try any of these to aid the transition back to sleep: a favorite stuffed animal to hold, a blanket, pillow, nightlight, dreamcatcher, or soft music. Or discuss some pleasant dreams your child would like to have.

For most kids, nightmares happen only now and then, are not cause for concern, and simply require a parent’s comfort and reassurance. Talk to your doctor or a sleep coach if nightmares often prevent your child from getting enough sleep or if they happen along with other emotional or behavioral troubles.

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