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Coping When Your Preschooler has a Nightmare or Night Terror

What to do When Dreams Aren't Sweet


Nothing can make a parent feel more helpless than when their child has a nightmare or even worse, a night terror. Unfortunately, nightmares and night terrors can be common for children this age due to a growing awareness of the world around them and an ever-active imagination. But there are things you can do to help.

What is a Nightmare?

A nightmare is a dream that evokes a strong emotional response from someone who is sleeping. They tend to happen later at night, during the second half of sleep during REM (rapid eye movement), when we are dreaming. They can be caused by just about anything and are very common in preschool-aged children.

Your preschooler may have had a nightmare because of something obvious like listening to a scary story or seeing something on television that upset them, but there could be other factors at play. Is there something stressful going on your child’s life, like parents divorcing or even the birth of a sibling? Is anything making him anxious -- perhaps a child is teasing him on the playground or he’s worried about an upcoming doctor’s appointment? It could even be something relatively minor -- did you pass a big barking dog on your daily walk or did she have to run away from a bumblebee while she was playing outside?

Stress can come in many forms for a child this age. Maybe you are starting toilet training or moving your little one from a crib to a bed. Did she start preschool recently? Are you in the process of moving? If your child is going through any of these major events, a nightmare is a very normal response as they try to sort through it in their head. Evaluate his stress levels, particularly if the nightmares are a recurring problem. During the day, while your child is calm, ask her what is going on. If there is a big event going on in her life, ask about it and try to talk it out. If there is something that she is truly afraid of like spiders or dogs, do some research -- take books out of the library on the subject or find a friend with a friendly dog that you can spend some time with. If she’s so fearful that she just won’t sleep or isn’t getting enough sleep give the pediatrician a call. There could be something bigger at play.

Whatever the cause, and you may never figure it out, preschoolers are at a prime age for having nightmares. Their imagination is starting to operate on full blast and their vocabulary is developed enough that they are able to describe what they dreamt about. In fact, oftentimes preschoolers remember their bad dream over the next few days and still get upset over it.

How to Soothe A Child After They’ve had a Nightmare

Trying to comfort your preschooler after they’ve had a nightmare isn’t the easiest of tasks. It’s the middle of the night, they’re agitated, scared and unlikely to want to return to sleep.

If your child is having a nightmare, wake them, For the most part it causes the nightmare to end immediately although it may take your child a few seconds to realize what is going on. If she wants to talk about it, let her but remember kids this age still don’t quite understand the difference between fantasy and reality so it may be too upsetting for her to discuss it. Above all else, be a comforting presence and use gentle cues to soothe her like rubbing her back or stroking her hair. If your child is very upset, try picking her up, walking out of the room and getting her a drink like a glass of water or warm milk. Try not to bring her back into your own bed as tempting as it may be. That’s a habit that is very difficult to break, plus she may decide that there is something in her room that she needs to be afraid of.

If your child’s dream was the stuff of make-believe like monsters or ghosts and now he’s scared to stay in his own room, try showing him that there are no monsters in the closet or under the bed, but don’t make a big deal over it. Tuck him back in, leave a night-light and return to your own room.

Next: Dealing with Recurring Nightmares

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