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What To Do When Your Child Has A Nightmare

Nightmares are a tricky obstacle when it comes to a child’s sleep routine.

You probably already know the scenario.

Your child comes to you in the middle of the night, justifiably frightened and teary-eyed, with the expression every parent knows so well…

“I had a bad dream.”

The best way to deal with nightmares is, obviously, to avoid them in the first place.

So what causes nightmares, anyway?

• Stress from trauma, unfamiliar surroundings or a change in routine
• Eating before bed
• Upsetting images on a TV show or in a book
• Excitement close to bedtime.

Bad dreams typically take place in the second half of the night, which means you’ll probably be sleeping yourself when your little one comes into your room.

The understandable request, “Can I sleep with you tonight,” is practically guaranteed, and because you’ll be sleepy and eager to calm them down, it’s a very easy one to give in to.

The child gets into bed, calms down almost immediately, and everybody goes back to sleep, right?

Here’s the problem:

You’re teaching your child that they need protection from nightmares.

Letting your child sleep with you contradicts the idea that there’s nothing to worry about.

After all, why would you offer the special privilege of letting them stay in your bed if they didn’t need protection?

You’re giving your child a free pass for sleeping in your bed.

Kids will test the waters and see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting their way.

If they see that a nightmare gets them a night in Mom’s bed, you can be sure that they’ll start complaining of them more and more frequently.

You’re not allowing them the opportunity to cope on their own.

Nightmares, believe it or not, are actually a good opportunity for children to start confronting their fears.

Once they learn to handle nightmares on their own, they’ll have a much shorter interval between waking from them and getting back to sleep.

So what should you do?

• Stick to the facts. Assure your child that what they just experienced was only part of their imagination, and that nothing in their dreams can hurt them.

• If they ask you to check the closet or under the bed, go ahead, but do it casually and reinforce the fact that whatever they were dreaming about was only in their heads.

• Stay with them for a bit until they’ve calmed down, but resist the urge to climb into bed with them.

• Remind them of how fun and magical their dreams normally are and ask them to describe what they’d like to dream about when they go back to sleep.

• Hugs, kisses and back rubs

• Be patient. The dream might not have been real, but the feelings that it created certainly are, so stay with your child until they’ve calmed down.

What should you avoid?

• Don’t climb into bed with your child or allow them to get into yours. It’s a quick fix, but it sets a precedent that will lead to more late night wake-ups down the road.

• Don’t discuss the nightmare too much. Let your child tell you about it, and reassure them that you’ve had similar nightmares yourself, but don’t encourage them to relive the entire experience.

• Stay away from gimmicks like “monster spray” and “No Monsters Allowed” signs on the bedroom door. Telling your child that monsters don’t exist, while providing them with tools to keep them away, sends a mixed message.

Remember, it’s normal for a child between the ages of 3 and 8 to have the occasional nightmare. If they happen consistently enough to interfere with your child’s sleep pattern, you should speak with your doctor.

And, if you are interested in getting your child sleeping 11+ hours through the night, you may want to check out The Sleep Sense Program.

Learn more.

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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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