7 steps to banish nightmares in children

7 steps to banish nightmares in children

With Halloween occurring next weekend, it is a good time to discuss 7 steps to banish nightmares in children. Although many people in New Zealand do not celebrate Halloween, it has become progressively more popular, along with the “spooky” episodes that come with our TV programmes, and online games.  Scary things can definitively bring on scary dreams, so here are some tips to dealing with them if they do occur.

First of all, what is a nightmare?

A nightmare is a form of emotional stimulation during sleep, basically it’s a frighting or scary dream. Nightmares are most likely to occur in the later part of the sleep cycle (and during the latter part of the night) during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. They are most prominent in children between 3 and 10 years, when imagination is most active, but anyone of any age can have them.

Because these “bad” dreams are accompanied by fear, a child will typically seek you out on waking from their nightmare. And although scared will accept your comfort. Because they recognize you upon seeing you, and calm down in your presence, you can help distinguish a nightmare from a Night Terror. If you are in any doubt over whether your child is experiencing nightmares or night terrors (which are quite different and a lot scarier for the parent) – check out this blog:  the difference between night-terrors and nightmares.

Nightmares can be a part of life for some people. They involve fear, anxiety, and other emotions such as anger, sadness, embarrassment or disgust. Following a nightmare, a child will wake up confused, anxious or scared about what they have just dreamt. As adults we may be able to talk ourselves out of it with logic and reality. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy for children to do. So parental help and comfort is needed for children.

According to a Cleveland Clinic study it is estimated that 10-50% of children aged 3-6 years have nightmares that can seem terrifyingly real. This is in part a developmental stage, where the difference between make believe and reality are still intertwined.

As with most things, prevention is often easier than the cure. So, what can we do to prevent nightmares in children, and what will help us deal with them?

Preventing and dealing with nightmares

1. Avoid scary movies or books before bed. There are reasons scary movies have a parental guidance or Restricted rating. These ratings will help you determine if a movie is appropriate for the younger members of your family. And don’t discount sneakiness. If your young one can work an iPad and you don’t already have a parental lock on Netflix or Disney+, now is a good time to check the settings and add one.

2. Don’t play scary games. For a child who has trouble distinguishing imagination from reality, a scary game can linger well after it’s over.

3. Help your child get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation won’t necessarily cause nightmares, but lack of good sleep can definitely increase them. Make sure you know how much sleep is recommended for your child.

4. Check medication with your doctor or paediatrician to make sure your child is not on anything that might be interfering with his or her night sleep. Although rare, there are some medications that affect REM sleep and can induce nightmares. Other medications can cause trouble sleeping and increase sleep debt, that also doesn’t help.

5. Be cautious not to over dramatise the nightmare itself and make it worse by buying into it. Children can pick up on your response and feed off it, so keep cool and don’t give it too much attention. If fears have been growing for a while check out the blog on overcoming bedtime fears.

6. Leading on from the step above. Acknowledge the bad dream (they really can be scary) but don’t ask your child for a detailed recount. This will only make them re-live it and will likely make it harder for them to get back to sleep again afterwards.

7. Reassure your child and let them go back to sleep as soon as possible, after a quick kiss and cuddle. This can be the best recovery method.

Don’t fall into bad habits

One habit that is very easy to get into following a nightmare, is letting children sleep in your bed. If this is something you don’t usually do, try not to get into the habit of doing it after a nightmare. It is important to comfort and support your child, for sure. But if they come come into your room, give them a cuddle, then, after a few minutes take them back to their own bed. If need be, you can sit with your child in their room until they feel safe again.

If nightmares are a regular occurrence, what else is going on?

For many children, dreams are a way of processing what is happening in their life, such as a divorce, death in the family, and bullying at school, for example. These can present as nightmares because they are dealing with some big emotions in these situations. If you feel like your child is having ongoing, regular nightmares, it is probably worth looking into what is happening in their day to day lives. Is there something causing them to be emotionally stressed frequently? Ongoing nightmares can make a child fearful of sleep, and that can turn into a downward spiral of being sleep deprived and making the nightmares worse.

Hopefully the steps above have given you a path to help prevent or at least minimise nightmares in your family. But if you ever feel that you or your child may need some extra help with sleep, feel free to contact me. Book a free initial call to discuss your circumstances. I am here to help you get a good night’s sleep.

Sleep well,


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