As adults, we may have forgotten what it was like to have nightmares as a young child. With their expansive imaginations and lack of real-world context, a scary dream can seem especially vivid to a preschooler – even if he knows it wasn’t real.
Here are some ways you can help your preschooler deal with his nightmares, and reduce the frequency of future bad dreams.
Give comfort and reassurance
It’s a good idea to comfort your child with a hug or a familiar book after she’s had a nightmare. Your presence is very reassuring, and she’ll know that nothing bad can happen to her now that she’s awake. However, try to resist the urge to let her continue her night’s sleep in your bed; this could encourage a habit you may have a difficult time breaking later on.
When comforting your child, remember to stay calm and pragmatic. Your child models your own behavior, so listening to her describe her nightmare without seeming anxious will show her that everything is okay.
Be mindful of “monster-hunting” activities
Giving your preschooler tools to deal with his nightmares can help him feel secure. Many parents like to search the child’s room with him to show him there are no monsters. Others create imaginative solutions to help ward off scary creatures, such as a pleasant smelling “monster spray.” These actions can temporarily assure your child that he’s safe, but it may also accidentally reinforce his fear that monsters exist.
Instead, teach coping skills such as talking about their nightmare, and give him a sense of comfort by offering him a stuffed animal or nightlight. One interesting strategy some families use is having the child draw a picture of his bad dream, and then throwing the drawing away as a symbolic gesture.
Help to reduce nightmares
Even though you can’t completely prevent your child from having nightmares, try these strategies to reduce their frequency:
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Create a cozy, safe sleep environment for your child where she can feel comfortable and secure.
- Ensure your child doesn’t read scary stories or watch scary movies too close to bedtime.
- Try to lower the amount of stress in your child’s daily life.
- If your child is anxious about something, talk through it during daylight hours.
- If your child has recently experienced a traumatic event, seek help from a medical professional. It’s possible that your child needs outside help to cope.
Nightmares vs. night terrors
Preschoolers can also experience night terrors, which seem similar to nightmares. However, while nightmares tend to occur during deep REM sleep, night terrors happen soon after the child falls asleep. When a child is experiencing a night terror, he may appear to be awake and acting frightened. He may talk to himself or shout, or move around in his bed.
Because night terrors appear more dramatic and immediate than a nightmare, they can seem quite alarming to parents. However, a child experiencing a night terror will often calm down on his own and continue sleeping. It may help to gently comfort your child, such as rubbing his arm or back, but attempting to wake him may make it more difficult for him to fall asleep again. While night terrors appear very stressful, children rarely have any memory of the event the next day.
Nightmares are a common occurrence for young children. Though they are frightening and confusing for the child, parents have a wealth of strategies at their disposal to deal with preschooler nightmares.