Almost all children and adults have the occasional nightmare. A nightmare may cause your child to wake in the night upset and need you to give him comfort and reassurance before he can slip back into sleep.
What is a nightmare?
A nightmare is a bad dream and occurs in 25-50% of children aged 3-6 years. Nightmares happen during the second half of the night while we are in the active REM sleep cycle, which is when we dream. Unlike night terrors, a nightmare will wake a child and she will then be aware of having had a bad dream. Though she may be unable to articulate what happened in the dream that was so upsetting, she will probably need calming before she’ll be able to go to sleep again.
Causes of nightmares
- Reading a story before bedtime – classic fairytales can be quite creepy for young children
- Watching a scary TV program before bed - and remember what a young child considers frightening can be very different to what we consider frightening
- Being overtired
- Being stressed during the day – starting a new school, getting lost, being bullied are all stressful
- An over-active imagination
- Anxiety over family tensions – young children often worry about their parents’ relationship, particularly if they witness conflict
How can I help my child with nightmares?
The occasional nightmare is not a sign of emotional disturbance; it is merely your child’s brain processing the stimuli and information he received during the day.
- If your child is having a recurring nightmare, then she may be under some kind of stress that you’re unaware of. Do a little gentle digging and you may discover the source of her worries and then take measures to fix it.
- If your child has experienced some type of trauma, she may have nightmares about it, so offer comfort while the nightmares last and they should gradually ease over time.
- If your child wakes up due to a nightmare, reassure her that it was a bad dream and that she’s safe. A kiss and a cuddle might help her settle again.
- If your child wants to tell you about her nightmare, let her talk about it as this will help calm her.
- If your child is having nightmares because she doesn’t feel safe, ask her what would make her feel safer and try to make some changes that will reassure her.
Don’t make fun of her nightmares. They may sound silly in the light of day but they are very real and frightening to your child.
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