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Is Your Child Having Nightmares? Here’s How to Help

Blog Is Your Child Having Nightmares? Here’s How to Help

“It’s very normal for children between the ages of 3 and 6 to have bad dreams because their imagination is very active during this stage,” says Dr. Darling.


Are your child’s bad dreams making the whole family lose sleep? Lara Darling, MD, a pediatrician at Riley Children’s Health, explains how you can ease your child’s fears.

If you have a toddler or preschooler, chances are you’ve spent more than a few nights trying to comfort her after a scary dream. Though it’s still unclear why any of us dream, experts do know that nightmares are particularly common in young kids for developmental reasons. “It’s very normal for children between the ages of 3 and 6 to have bad dreams because their imagination is very active during this stage,” says Dr. Darling. “It’s also a time when fears start to develop because kids are becoming more aware of the world, and they see that bad things happen sometimes.”

You’re probably already familiar with some common triggers of kids’ nightmares, such as seeing something scary on TV or experiencing a stressful event like a move or divorce. But poor sleep hygiene plays a role as well. “An irregular sleep schedule, lack of sleep, or a bright or loud sleep environment can contribute to nightmares,” says Dr. Darling.

To help your child avoid and cope with bad dreams, Dr. Darling offers these tips:

Keep a regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine. “Consistency is comforting,” says Dr. Darling. If your child feels anxious in the dark, it’s fine to introduce a nightlight—just make sure it’s dim so it won’t disturb her sleep.

Ask your child what happened in the nightmare. If he does have a bad dream, he’ll probably tell you at least some of what he saw without prompting. Still, getting some details can help you comfort him. “It allows you to point out all the things that aren’t real in the nightmare,” says Dr. Darling.

Don’t dismiss her fears. You know ghosts aren’t real, but a young child who just had a vivid nightmare that one was chasing her needs your understanding and reassurance. Though your first instinct may be to tell her, “It was just a dream,” saying “You had a dream, and dreams are normal” is more likely to put her at ease.

Be creative. If your child has nightmares about monsters, for example, mix up some “monster spray”: Fill a spray bottle with water and a few drops of essential oil and let him spritz it around his room to repel the “monsters.” (Though this tactic might seem to suggest to your child that monsters are real, Dr. Darling says toddlers can’t read that deeply into it.) “It’s fine to check the closet and under the bed to show him nothing is there, but don’t make it a big production,” she says.

Avoid letting her sleep with you. Otherwise you run the risk of creating a routine that’s hard to break, says Dr. Darling. “If your child comes into your bedroom to tell you she had a nightmare, steer her back to her room and talk about it there,” she says.

Know when to seek help. If your child has multiple nightmares a week, is wetting the bed when he normally stays dry, or is anxious during the day, see your pediatrician to rule out a health issue. “Nightmares sometimes indicate a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, so be sure to report any other symptoms you’ve observed, such as snoring and gasping for breath,” says Dr. Darling.

-- By Jessica Brown

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