It’s not clear at what age kids begin to dream, but even toddlers may speak about having dreams — pleasant ones and scary ones. While almost every child has an occasional frightening or upsetting dream, nightmares seem to peak during the preschool years when fear of the dark is common.
Nightmares aren’t completely preventable, but parents can set the stage for a peaceful night’s rest. That way, when nightmares do creep in, a little reassurance and comfort from you can quickly restore your child’s peace of mind.
Helping kids conquer this common childhood fear also equips them to overcome other scary things that might arise down the road.
Create a “nighttime kit” to keep near your child’s bed for these times. The kit might include a flashlight, a favorite book, and a cassette or CD to play. Explain the kit, then put it in a special place where your child can get to it in the middle of the night.
Favorite objects like stuffed animals and blankets also can help kids feel safe. If your child doesn’t have a favorite, go shopping together to pick out a warm, soft blanket or stuffed animal.
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.
Some parents get into the habit of lying down next to their preschoolers until they fall asleep. While this may do the trick temporarily, it won’t help sleeping patterns in the long run.
It’s important to give comfort and reassurance, but kids need to learn how to fall asleep independently. Establishing a routine where you have to be there for your child to go to sleep will make it hard for both of you — and be unfair to your child — if you start leaving beforehand.
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.
Be a good listener. No need to talk more than briefly about the nightmare in the wee hours — just help your child feel calm, safe, and protected, and ready to go back to sleep. But in the morning, your child may want to tell you all about last night’s scary dream. By talking about it — maybe even drawing the dream or writing about it — in the daylight, many scary images lose their power. Your child might enjoy thinking up a new (more satisfying) ending to the scary dream.
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 occur along with other emotional or behavioral troubles.
© 2016. Article adapted from The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth®. Used under license.