Have you ever had a dream so horrifying that you woke up with your heart pounding so hard since everything in the dream felt so real? True confession: I often dream that I’m landing a plane on a highway (weird since I don’t fly).
Anyone can be affected by nightmares, children included. Young toddlers or preschoolers, however, can be severely affected by nightmares, which are dreams about imaginary things like monsters, or other scary things.
Sometimes, these dreams can make your child feel so afraid and upset that they might even refuse to go back to sleep.
Nightmares should not be a cause for concern unless your child’s emotional state or sleep is affected.
What causes nightmares in children?
One important thing you need to know about nightmares is that they can happen for no reason.
The exact reasons why nightmares occur is not well known, but in some cases, some activities or occurrences in your child’s life can lead to such scary dreams. These incidents and activities include:
- Terrifying things such as being barked at by a dog, and others that happen during the day
- Scary visual imagery such as horror movies
- Some medication
- Traumatic events
- Ordinary stress and strains of growing up
In addition, nightmares can also affect children who don’t get enough sleep (going to bed in an overtired state). Making sure that your child isn’t staying up too late getting the right amount of sleep can also help minimize nightmares happening in the first place!
At what age do nightmares begin?
Frightening dreams can begin when a child is as young as two years with such episodes intensifying when one is between 3 and 6 years, though some sources suggest that nightmares can start as early as when a child is 1 year old.
No matter how hard you try, you might never understand how complex a child’s nightmare is before they reach an age when they start expressing themselves.
In addition, when a child is less than five years, your child might not be able to differentiate between a nightmare and reality.
That’s why most of the kids within that range wake up terrified after a nightmare and remain scared for a while before going back to sleep.
What else could it be other than nightmares?
In some cases, your child might be experiencing something else in their sleep, which may not necessarily be a nightmare.
The most common variation of nightmares is night terrors, which can happen at any time of the day as long as your child is sleeping (Which is why they are also known as sleep terrors).
When night terrors happen, the child cries a lot and seems to be awake while they are not.
Your child might even seem to have opened their eyes, but they don’t even know that you are there.
That’s why trying to calm a young one who is experiencing sleep terrors is not a good idea, as you might worsen the situation.
The good thing is that the young one will calm down on their own and go to back to sleep when the experience is over. When they wake up again, they won’t even remember anything about the disruption they had when sleeping.
Though the cause of night terrors is still unknown, it seems to be hereditary. This is because children who experience such sleep-distractions come from families with a history of night terrors, sleeptalking, or sleepwalking.
Night terrors should, however, not worry any parent because they are not associated with any psychological issues later in life. They are simply a temporary phase that your child will grow out of after some time.
What should you do about nightmares?
If your young one tends to experience nightmares more often, there are several things you can do to minimize or brush off the bad dreams. Such things include:
Ensure your child gets adequate sleep
A calm mind is less likely to generate nightmares, and one of the ways to do that is to ensure that your young one gets enough quality sleep at night. Always see to it that your child follows their bedtime routine and that they sleep in a conducive environment as that will facilitate peaceful sleep.
Stick to a ‘light’ and fun bedtime routine
Before your child goes to bed, avoid exposing them to any scary movies, frightening bedtime stories, and any other stimuli that might make your young one have horrifying dreams as they sleep. It’s also important that you make sure that your child doesn’t lose the strong skills of falling asleep independently – because that’s when a lot of the sleep issues get worse.
Discuss the nightmare
In some cases, you have to discuss the dream with your young one to identify any stressors that could be in the child’s life. Such stressors are commonly associated with frequently-occurring nightmare themes. If your child keeps on experiencing similar nightmares, it might be that something is bothering him/her, so try to discuss such occurrences with them, and work with your child to eliminate such stressors.
Reassure your child
At such horrifying moments, your love and comfort will go a long way in reassuring your child that it’s only fear that they have, which is why they keep experiencing the nightmares. You might have to stay by their side after the nightmare until they fall asleep again. You can allow them to snuggle with their favorite security blanket or soft toy, as that will make them feel that they are not alone.
If your child wishes to have the lights on, ensure that it’s at the dimmest setting, or use a night light to provide the comfort required. Also consider leaving the young one’s bedroom door open, so that they won’t feel isolated from the rest of the family.
(Expert tip: Did you know that blue and white light is actually more stimulating? Try and use a nightlight color that can mimic the dusk – think pinks, reds or yellow).
Use creative ways to overcome nightmares
In some homes, parents and their children have resorted to using different creative ways of dealing with nightmares such as children using “monster sprays” to “fight” the monsters in their scary dreams. I find that these mimics do more harm than good since you’re buying into the fact that monsters are real. I suggest other techniques such as drawing pictures of nightmares, then tearing and throwing them away as a symbolic gesture. Whatever the case, use your imagination and creativity to come up with the best solutions to deal with nightmares.
Teach your child coping skills
One of the best ways to overcome nightmares is to have positive thoughts, and that’s what you should be teaching your young one. You can tell them something like, “Monsters are really scary, but they will never come into our house. See how strong our windows are. My job is to keep you safe and I will never let anyone hurt you”, or whatever will make them feel reassured and relaxed.
Don’t make them dependent
One thing you never want to do when helping your child to overcome nightmares is to make them reliant on your presence to be calm. Never allow them to join you in your bed, or make it a practice to stay by their side every time they wake up from a nightmare.
Nightmares are common for children under the age of 6 years, so as a parent, such experiences should not make you freak out at all. All you need to do is make your child feel safe, and let them know that it’s normal to have such dreams as one is growing. Try to be as supportive and understanding as possible, as that’s what your child relies on to be okay.