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Earlier this year, my son had his first nightmare. It was horrible. As a parent, it was the most difficult trial I’ve had thus far. My husband and I really, truly didn’t know what to do. In the middle of the night, I was at a loss: Do I turn on the light — or not? Sleep with him — or not? Try to get him to talk about the dream — or does that make it worse? I definitely didn’t have the answers. It’s so upsetting to see your little one struggling with such intense fear – and so beyond exhausting to not know how to help at 3 in the morning.

So I sought the wisdom of Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, co-founder of Sleepy Planet, who has vast knowledge about child development and the myriad of sleep disruptions our children grapple with. Abbie got some great insight from Noel Janis-Norton, and shared that with me as well. Armed with the advice of these two experts, we moved through this rough period in my family. I hope it helps you too. Let us know.

–Sam Kurtzman-Counter, Exec VP of The Mother Company

How do you suggest parents of 3-6 year olds help their children deal with nightmares?


Age 3 is usually the earliest age when kids begin to have nightmares, and they become more common after age 4. As children develop increasingly advanced language skills, and begin to go out into the world – interacting with teachers and peers at school, navigating social interactions on play dates – their life experiences become more complex. Just as adults process daytime activity during their dreamtime, children do, too.

For many children, nightmares can be triggered by seeing something scary on TV or in a movie; having an unusually stressful experience, such as an ER visit after an accident; or a major life transition, such as starting a new school or having a death in the family. If there is no specific trigger, the nightmare probably reflects a child’s general fears about growing up and becoming more independent. Because kids can’t say, “Mom and Dad, I’m ambivalent about getting older, and I have some anxiety about that,” they project their fears onto things like monsters, the dark, or shadows, which serve as a holding tank for their emotions.

If your child has a nightmare, comfort him and encourage him to briefly describe the dream. Next, honor his feelings (which are real), but dispel the dream (which is not): “Wow, that must have been really scary to have that big dog chasing you. But that was just a dream, and it wasn’t real. You’re here at home, safe and snug in your bed.” Don’t let him keep looping back over the details, which will continue to trigger his upset feelings. Also, avoid checking under the bed or in the closet for whatever he’s afraid of (such as monsters), which only feeds into the idea that there could actually *be* a monster lurking in the shadows. Instead, offer one last hug, tuck him back in, and encourage him to go back to sleep – in his own bed, not yours. Though it can be tempting to snuggle with your child for the rest of the night, doing so can actually feed into his fear rather than diminish it; he’ll likely believe that if you’re going so far out of your way to take care of him, there must really be something to be scared about.

If a child begins having a nightmare repeatedly, there may be an underlying emotional issue that isn’t being addressed during the day. This can be the case when there’s been a major change in her life, such as the birth of a new sibling or the loss of a pet or a loved one. Try to explore her feelings with her during the day rather than right before bed, so she won’t carry her upset feelings into sleep. Children this age aren’t always able to talk about their feelings, so encourage her to paint, draw, sing, dance, or express her feelings through another creative outlet as an alternative. If a child can draw the scary creature from her nightmare – then add a pink bow to its hair and a polka-dot dress – the monster can become something silly and non-threatening. Once your child becomes empowered about her fears, her sleep should return to normal.


How to reduce and prevent nightmares:

We may need to drastically reduce the amount of time that this child is spending in front of a screen, and we will need to monitor very closely the content of what he is being exposed to in order to avoid scary images and plots.

We will need to ban scary stories at bedtime. Highly-strung children, the ones who tend to get scared easily, are often fascinated by the very images or scenes they find disturbing, so given the choice, they may pick bedtime stories that they find scary. We must not allow this to happen at bedtime because children’s brains are more vulnerable and more susceptible to influence when they are tired. So save any potentially scary stories for broad daylight.

Another factor that influences nightmares is who your child plays with. If a sensitive, intense child spends a lot of time with a playmate who loves to talk about violence or who only wants to play games that include killing, wounding, aggressive chasing and blowing things up, you will need to intervene and teach the children to play completely different types of games when they are together. Do not try to ban aggressive or spooky games altogether; that is almost impossible. But you need to minimize their impact on your child by broadening his repertoire of other enjoyable activities.

You can desensitize children to whatever has scared them in their nightmares by playing a game where you and your child each take turns at being the monster, for example. It is very liberating and confidence-building for a child to act out the part of the thing they are anxious about. The other person’s role is to react to the scary character or event in a variety of different ways. The person whose turn it is to react could pretend to be scared or friendly or annoyed or curious. Then you and your child switch roles. This game demystifies the dream images and weakens their impact.

Have lots of conversations about how stories and movies are not true; they are just pretend. The key to getting your message across is to ask questions and have your child answer your questions because if you are doing the talking it will sound like a lecture, and your child will soon tune you out. As much as possible arrange that the same-gender parent plays these desensitizing games and has these conversations. It will have a much bigger impact on the child.

You may also need to make some lifestyle changes. It may be hard to believe, but things like nutrition and exercise, which happen during the day, significantly influence what goes on in a child’s brain during the night. In particular, it helps to cut out all junk food and refined carbohydrates. And when children get plenty of exercise every day, they sleep more soundly at night and have fewer nightmares.

Arrange to have daily special time alone with each child — not in front of a screen. Frequent and predictable special time alone with a parent will help your child to be more relaxed and also more confident. And statistically, the more relaxed and confident a child is during the day, the more likely he is to sleep soundly through the night, undisturbed by bad dreams.

Studies have shown that children who know how to self-soothe and solve their own problems during the day are less likely to suffer from daytime anxieties and from nightmares. We can help children develop the habits of self-reliance and self-confidence by not doing anything for them that they can do for themselves. Whatever he can do for himself, require him to do it. He may protest at first, especially if you have been in the habit of showing your love by doing too much for him. But if you remember to notice and praise all the little things he is doing for himself all day long, soon he will be very proud of himself, and his confidence will increase greatly.

The more consistently children get enough sleep, the more resilient they are and the less likely they are to have nightmares. Parents are often surprised when they find out how much sleep children actually need; it’s probably more than you think. If fears are keeping your child awake past his bedtime, start the whole bedtime routine earlier to build in some extra time for your child’s resistance, reluctance, refusal or tantrum. That way he will still get all the sleep he needs.

How to handle nightmares effectively when they occur:

You need to stay calm and keep your voice low. Do not turn on the light because you want to send the message that this is still sleep time. If your child came to get you, bring him back to his bed. Sit on your child’s bed and cuddle him until he stops crying. He will stop crying sooner if you don’t try to get him to stop crying. Don’t interrupt him, and don’t try to distract him from his upset feelings. There is no way you can take the problem away so don’t even try; it will only frustrate you and your child.

As your child’s crying subsides, you will be able to be heard if you speak. We need to think before we speak because our words can be very influential. It is tempting to explain to your child that there is really nothing to be scared of; it was just a bad dream.

Instead, keep acknowledging how scared your child was. This will help him to feel understood. You could say something like, “That was a really scary dream. Maybe you thought it was real. Now you’re awake, and you can see that you’re in your bed. Your bed is real”.

Sometimes children notice that complaining about a nightmare in the middle of the night gets them sympathy and possibly even special privileges, such as being carried into the living room or being given a little snack. This will increase the likelihood of more nightmares, real or pretend, on subsequent days.

To ensure that your child doesn’t start to use complaining about nightmares as a way to get attention, we need to respond lovingly but without giving any special privileges. Remember that bedtime is bedtime, so comfort him in his bed. He does not need an extra drink or an extra snack or an extra stuffed animal. If he asks for a glass of water, rather than your getting it for him, you can go with him while he gets his own water. This helps him to become more self-reliant. Children do, of course, need lots of our attention, so make sure to have plenty of family fun (that’s not in front of a screen).

Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, is a regular contributor in our extraordinary stable of experts at The Mother Company. She is co-founder of Sleepy Planet, a company that offers collaborative consultation, education, parenting groups, counseling, and products to parents of children birth to five years. She is co-creator of the book and DVD “The Sleepeasy Solution,” and also maintains a private practice as parenting consultant and educator. Check out more of Jennifer’s helpful articles: Tantrums, Testing, & Talking Back, When You Don’t Like Your Child, Nightmares, and In Search of the Holiday Spirit.

Noel Janis-Norton is founder and director of The New Learning Centre in London. She is a learning and behavior specialist with more than 40 years’ experience helping parents and teachers on both sides of the Atlantic. Through her innovative Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching programs, she has helped hundreds of thousands of parents and teachers learn effective techniques that result in more cooperative, confident, motivated, self-reliant and considerate children both at home and in the classroom.

Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions, Health & Wellness, Tough Topics