If your child has not yet learned how to fall asleep on their own for naps and bedtime, then normal nocturnal arousals can turn into lengthy wake ups as baby calls out for help to fall back to sleep. But what if your child is sleep trained, and wakes up out of the blue overnight? Or, what if your child who hasn’t yet undergone sleep training wakes up at night and is unusually upset?
Nightmares are fairly common in children ages 2-4. This is the age when normal fears develop and imaginations expand. Children this age often have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Many things can cause stress, and then nightmares, at this age, from potty training to moving to a big kid bed. A new sibling or changes in childcare can also trigger these.
Nightmares happen during REM sleep, and many kids don’t wake up after them. However, the dreams can rouse a child in part because they trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response that elevates heart rate. Any source of stress—even being overtired—can increase the risk of nightmares. So bad dreams can be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Stressing out about whether you’re going to have a nightmare makes you more likely to have one. When a child wakes up feeling afraid, his house can seem scary and that can make it even tougher for him to fall back to sleep alone, they will seek comfort after they wake. They are able to recall the nightmare but it can take a while to fall back asleep and get the thoughts out of their mind.
Occasional nightmares are normal. If your child has nightmares every now and then, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong emotionally. You don’t need to worry.
Children with vivid imaginations might have nightmares more often than other children. Again, you don’t need to worry.
A range of possible causes
- Some of the possible causes of nightmares include:
- The ordinary stresses and strains of growing up
- A traumatic event, such as an accident or surgery
- An active imagination.
Tips for dealing with nightmares and bad dreams
- Have a relaxing and predictable bedtime routine
- Read positive books that avoid strong emotional storylines
- Don’t play scary games
- Avoid scary videos, books, shows prior to bed
- Lower lights for 45 minutes prior to bedtime
- Focus on happy and positive music during the day
- Put your child to bed early because overtiredness can increase nightmares
- Let your child know it’s OK to feel scared after a nightmare. Avoid dismissing the fear or saying that your child is being silly, because nightmares can seem very real to children
- Be patient if your child talks about a nightmare the next day. Listen to your child’s worries – don’t dismiss or downplay them. Calmly talking together about the bad dream can reduce its emotional power. But if your child seems to have forgotten about a nightmare, it’s probably best not to raise it.
- Check with your paediatrician to make sure your child is not on any medications that might be interfering with his night sleep.
- Nightmares can cause your child to be scared of the dark. A small nightlight can be okay (preferably red/orange light which less interrupt the melatonin production)
- When your child has a nightmare, respond quickly. Hugs or back rubs can be very helpful until the child calms down. If your child wants to talk about the nightmare, that is okay but don’t press the issue.
Don’t make things worse
You may, without meaning to, make the situation worse. DO NOT:
- Ignore the child – if you refuse to go to them, your child will only get more upset and frantic.
- Get angry – you may think your child is ‘putting it on’ for attention, or else you don’t appreciate a broken sleep. Either way, expressing anger or tension will only upset your child even more.
- Allow them to sleep with you – when you’re tired and wishing for an easy solution, it’s tempting to take the child back to bed with you, but this tactic suggests to the child that sleeping in their own bed is what causes the nightmare. Eventually, they may insist on sleeping with you all the time.
It can be a good idea to seek professional advice if none of these strategies work after a few weeks, or your child’s nightmares are making him scared during the day and interfering with his normal life.
If you need help to sleep coach your child to self settles or even sleep longer stretch throughout the night and it is not caused by nightmares, welcome to get in touch with me.