It's not clear at what age kids begin to dream, but even toddlers may speak about having dreams — pleasant ones and scary ones. While almost every child has an occasional frightening or upsetting dream, nightmares seem to peak during the preschool years when fear of the dark is common. But older kids (and even adults) have occasional nightmares, too.
Nightmares aren't completely preventable, but parents can set the stage for a peaceful night's rest. That way, when nightmares do creep in, a little reassurance and comfort from you can quickly restore your child's peace of mind.
Helping kids conquer this common childhood fear also equips them to overcome other scary things that might arise down the road.
When Do Nightmares Happen?
Nightmares — like most dreams — occur during the stage of sleep when the brain is very active and sorting through experiences and new information for learning and memory. The vivid images the brain is processing can seem as real as the emotions they might trigger.
This part of sleep is known as the rapid eye movement or REM stage because the eyes are rapidly moving beneath closed eyelids. Nightmares tend to happen during the second half of a night's sleep, when REM intervals are longer.
When kids awaken from a nightmare, its images are still fresh and can seem real. So it's natural for them to feel afraid and upset and to call out to a parent for comfort.
By about preschool age, kids begin to understand that a nightmare is only a dream — and that what's happening isn't real and can't hurt them. But knowing that doesn't prevent them from feeling scared. Even older kids feel frightened when they awaken from a nightmare and may need your reassurance and comfort.
What Causes Nightmares?
No one knows exactly what causes nightmares. Dreams — and nightmares — seem to be one way kids process thoughts and feelings about situations they face, and to work through worries and concerns.
Most times nightmares occur for no apparent reason. Other times they happen when a child is experiencing stress or change. Events or situations that might feel unsettling — such as moving, attending a new school, the birth of a sibling, or family tensions — might also be reflected in unsettling dreams.
Sometimes nightmares occur as part of a child's reaction to trauma — such as a natural disaster, accident, or injury. For some kids, especially those with a good imagination, reading scary books or watching scary movies or TV shows just before bedtime can inspire nightmares.
Themes of a nightmare tend to reflect whatever the child is going through at that age, whether it's struggles with aggressive feelings, independence, or fears of separation. The cast of characters might include monsters, bad guys, animals, imaginary creatures, or familiar people, places, and events combined in unusual ways.
Young kids might have nightmares of being gobbled up, lost, chased, or punished. Sometimes a nightmare contains recognizable bits and pieces of the day's events and experiences, but with a scary twist. A child might not remember every detail, but can usually recall some of the images, characters, or situations, and the scary parts.
Encouraging Sweet Dreams
Parents can't prevent nightmares, but can help kids get a good night's sleep — and that encourages sweet dreams.
To help them relax when it's time to sleep and associate bedtime with safety and comfort, be sure that kids:
- have a regular bedtime and wake-up time
- have a sleep routine that helps them slow down, and feel safe and secure as they drift off to sleep. This might include a bath, a snuggle from you, reading, or some quiet talk about the pleasant events of the day.
- have a bed that's a cozy, peaceful place to quiet down. A favorite toy, stuffed animal, night-light, or dream catcher can help.
- avoid scary movies, TV shows, and stories before bed — especially if they've triggered nightmares before
- know that nightmares aren't real, that they're just dreams and can't hurt them
After a Nightmare
Here's how to help your child cope after a nightmare:
Reassure your child that you're there. Your calm presence helps your child feel safe and protected after waking up feeling afraid. Knowing you'll be there helps strengthen your child's sense of security.
Label what's happened. Let your child know that it was a nightmare and now it's over. You might say something like, "You had a bad dream, but now you're awake and everything is OK." Reassure your child that the scary stuff in the nightmare didn't happen in the real world.
Offer comfort. Show that you understand that your child feels afraid and it's OK. Remind your child that everyone dreams and sometimes the dreams are scary, upsetting, and can seem very real, so it's natural to feel scared by them.
Do your magic. With preschoolers and young school-age kids who have vivid imaginations, the magical powers of your love and protection can work wonders. You might be able to make the pretend monsters disappear with a dose of pretend monster spray. Go ahead and check the closet and under the bed, reassuring your child that all's clear.
Mood lighting. A nightlight or a hall light can help kids feel safe in a darkened room as they get ready to go back to sleep. A bedside flashlight can be a good nightmare-chaser.
Help your child go back to sleep. Offering something comforting might help change the mood. Try any of these to aid the transition back to sleep: a favorite stuffed animal to hold, a blanket, pillow, nightlight, dreamcatcher, or soft music. Or discuss some pleasant dreams your child would like to have. And maybe seal it by giving your child a kiss to hold — in the palm of his or her hand — as you tiptoe out of the room.
Be a good listener. No need to talk more than briefly about the nightmare in the wee hours — just help your child feel calm, safe, and protected, and ready to go back to sleep. But in the morning, your child may want to tell you all about last night's scary dream. By talking about it — maybe even drawing the dream or writing about it — in the daylight, many scary images lose their power. Your child might enjoy thinking up a new (more satisfying) ending to the scary dream.
For most kids, nightmares happen only now and then, are not cause for concern, and simply require a parent's comfort and reassurance. Talk to your doctor if nightmares often prevent your child from getting enough sleep or if they occur along with other emotional or behavioral troubles.