Nightmares are scary dreams that often happen during the second half of the night when dreaming is most intense. Children may wake up crying or feeling afraid and may have trouble falling back to sleep. These seem to peak during the preschool years, but older kids have nightmares too. While preschoolers have an overactive imagination and worry about masters under the bed, older child incorporate real-life fears such as being kidnapped or a parent’s death into their dreams.
Nightmares aren’t completely preventable, but they are more likely to happen when children are overtired or under stress. Keeping your child on a regular sleep schedule may help prevent many of the worst case scenarios. Electronics should be turned off at least a half hour before bedtime. The bed should be cozy and if they need a stuff animal or toy, have it handy. Help them get calm before bed with a bath, reading, looking at the stars, or just talking to them before sleep all will help get your child into a good frame of mind.
If you find your child is anxious about bedtime, practice relaxation breathing. A popular technique is to imagine the breath is traveling in through your right nostril and out of the left nostril. Then the next breath goes in through the left nostril and out the right nostril. Go back and forth, as if you’re breathing in a circle. Be understanding if your child wakes up in the middle of the night. You might be tempted to tell them it wasn’t real, but to your child, it felt very real. Soothe your child and validate their feelings, show them that you understand that what they are feeling is okay.
Work your magic. This works for younger kids especially, but with your magical power of love and protection, you can magically make the monsters disappear. Go ahead and check under the bed and in the closet, add a nightlight if that will help set the mood. Of give your older child a nightmare finder – a fancy flashlight they can use to look around their room when they wake up scared. This is an empowering technique that lets them be in control of a situation where they might feel completely out-of-control.
If none of these strategies work after a few weeks or your child’s nightmares are getting worse or more intense, and it’s interfering with day-to-day life, talk to your pediatrician! There are many resources available to help kids (and parents) with nightmares and other sleep issues.
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