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What To Do About Your Child’s Nightmares

Scary Monster Clown in Boys ClosetNightmares are a fact of life. We have all woken in the night scared and confused with our hearts pounding after dreaming of being chased, hurt or threatened in some way. As adults, once we’re awake we can usually talk ourselves down and separate the dream from reality.

This can be a bit trickier with kids, who have a harder time deciphering what’s real and what’s not. And unfortunately, nightmares are pretty common with young children. According to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, kids usually start having nightmares between 3 and 6, although some can start even younger.


Why do we have them?

The jury is out on exactly what causes nightmares, but we do know it’s common for our dreams to reflect what’s happening in our daily life. In the case of bad dreams, if there’s something scary happening for a child during the day, those themes will play out in their sleep.

For instance, if a child is dealing with separation anxiety, they might have nightmares of being lost or their parents disappearing or being in an accident. Kids can also have nightmares based on scary stories they have been told by other children or things they see on TV or in the movies.


Sticking to the sleep plan.

Bad dreams can significantly affect kids’ sleep training, as they will often want to crawl into bed with Mom and Dad or have a parent sleep in their room so they can feel safe. So what can you do to keep them on track with sleeping in their own bed?

  1. Acknowledge the dream, but don’t ask your child for a play-by-play. That will just make it more vivid in their mind and then it will be harder to fall asleep again.
  2. Share the fact that you sometimes have bad dreams too and that nothing bad ever happens in real life when you have a nightmare.
  3. Try to give your child strategies for coping with night time fears. For example, when you tuck her in at night, ask her to tell you three great things about her day, and get her talking about positive things that will happen the next day. Ask her to think about those things as she falls asleep.
  4. Make sure that your child has a peaceful bedtime routine that does not involve watching TV right before bed. Kids also shouldn’t eat a big snack right before falling asleep, as this can contribute to having bad dreams as well.
  5. Make the dark fun! Play flashlight tag with the family or eat dinner by candlelight to teach your child that there is nothing scary about darkness.


4005afb1-7f84-4944-b883-984dad13335bBe supportive, but stick to your plan

It’s important to comfort your child when he has a bad dream, but you don’t want to give the dream too much attention either, or you may just encourage your child to come to you in the night with made-up nightmares.

If your child comes to your bed, give him a cuddle and take him back to his own bed. You can sit with him for a few minutes until he feels safe again. When he is calm and sleepy, leave the room. If he follows you, just keep bringing him back. Remember, letting him stay in your bed one time will create a precedent and next time he won’t want to give up until he gets that reward.

If you suspect your child is just waking in the night and wanting some extra attention as opposed to having actual nightmares, you can try a reward chart for all the nights your child goes to bed without a fuss and sleeps through the night.


If your child wakes up terrified on a regular basis, it is worth exploring whether there might be some things causing her stress and emotional upset in her daily life. Because dreams are our mind’s way of processing things that happen during the day, issues such as divorce, a death in the family or bullying at school could be presenting themselves to your child in the form of bad dreams. Try to talk to your child about any stressful things you are aware of and offer her tools for coping with them. If you feel your child needs extra help, counselling might be an option as well.

The Sleep Sense™ Program for Baby Sleep and Child Sleep DisordersHowever, if you feel your child just needs a nudge in the right direction to start sleeping more independently, click here to check out The Sleep Sense Program. It’s the same system than more than 109,000 parents have used to successfully get their children sleeping well, and it’s backed by a 1-year, no-hassle guarantee.

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Dana’s Sleep Blog

Straight talk about sleep, parenting,
babies, toddlers, relationships… and
just about anything else!
My blog is a great place to find opinions, advice, the occasional rant, and some great videos about sleep.

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