Childcare Family Parenting

Nightmares: how to help your child through them

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Nightmares not only scare children but can be stressful for parents as well. How do you cope?

As parents, we always want to make sure our children feel safe, protected and happy in their own homes. Thus, being awakened in the middle of the night by your sobbing child at your bedside can be heart breaking for most of us. In this moment, the first thing you need to do is focus on comfort. Gather them in your arms and comfort them with your cuddles and reassuring words.

When do children have nightmares?

We don’t know exactly when nightmares start, but research shows that it is most common in children aging from three to six. They commonly occur in the second half of a night’s sleep, when REM (Rapid Eye Movement) intervals are longer. The REM stage is when the eyes are rapidly moving beneath closed eyelids and the brain is very active.

Why do children have nightmares?

Research shows that when a child is experiencing change, be it moving school or the birth of a new sibling, they tend to have bad dreams. Events or situations that are unsettling during the day can also lead to anxiety that reflects in their dreams.

For some children with creative imaginations, reading scary books or watching spooky TV shows just before bedtime can cause bad dreams. Children at a younger age don’t know how to differentiate between real characters and fictional characters, thus what they read or see feels real to them. As they grow up, the ability to differentiate helps them realise that bad dreams are nothing more than their imagination.

How can we help?
  • As a parent, my first suggestion would be to play detective and LISTEN. Trust me, if you pay attention and allow your child to explain what exactly upset them, you’ll be able to know the trigger for their bad dreams sooner rather than later.
  • Surprisingly, children experience anxiety just like we do. Thus be attentive towards your child’s anxiety levels and their interactions with other children and adults. If you sense your child is anxious, comfort her with reassurances that things will be alright and that you will always be around to protect her.
  • Try to create a happy routine before bedtime. For example, if your child watches TV before bed, switch it up with singing a happy song or reading a fun story together. Sticking to a bed time also helps, the more rested your child is, the happier they will be.
  • Comforting them with cuddles and snuggles is a must – try to comfort them in their own room so they feel safe there. A nightlight is a clever idea or even a cuddle buddy.

The most important thing is that your child knows you care and are there to keep them safe.