7 ways to help when your child has a nightmare

February 13, 2017
  • Common in preschoolers
    1 / 9 Common in preschoolers

    It’s quite common for a child in kindergarten to have a nightmare once every two or three months.

    Nightmares can be triggered by different factors, not just anxiety. For instance, some children are more likely to have a nightmare if they eat cheese at night.

    Others have disturbing dreams if they watch a scary movie or TV show before bedtime.

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  • Why nightmares happen
    2 / 9 Why nightmares happen

    Nightmares can also be stimulated by the onset of an illness, or by something the child is worried about.

    These are the most common causes, so if yourpreschooler is prone to bad dreams, look closely at what happens in the hour or two prior to bedtime.

    You may find a link between her pre-bedtime behaviour and the onset of nightmares, which could lead to a simple solution such as changing her evening diet or modifying her viewing habits.

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  • Don’t shake her out of it
    3 / 9 Don’t shake her out of it

     Your child may still be in the middle of the dream when she cries out.

    Shaking her awake could upset her even more, especially if she perceives this as part of the dream.

    Try and avoid sharp, jerky physical movements.


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  • Give reassurance
    4 / 9 Give reassurance

     Whether she is awake or asleep, speak to her in a soothing, reassuring voice.

    Stroke her forehead or cheek gently. Even asleep, she’ll be sensitive to these loving physical contacts.

    Tell her quietly that she is fine, that everything’s all right, and that you are with her to keep her safe.


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  • Stay calm
    5 / 9 Stay calm

    Watching your child have a troubling dream can be upsetting, even frightening.

    Remind yourself that nothing dreadful will happen to her as a result of this nightmare. At worst, she’ll tremble from the effects; at best, she’ll have forgotten all about it in the morning.

    It is common for a young child to sleep right through a nightmare, so just do what you can to calm her in a way that lets her stay asleep.


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  • Listen to what she says, even if she is incoherent.
    6 / 9 Listen to what she says, even if she is incoherent.

    A child who wakes up from a nightmare often has trouble distinguishing her dream from reality at that moment and may talk as though she is still in the dream.

    Simply reassure her, make her feel safe and secure.


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  • Take her out of bed
    7 / 9 Take her out of bed

    Assuming her nightmare is over and she is awake, she might prefer to leave the bedroom for a few moments.

    She could go to the toilet, or go with you for a glass of milk and a biscuit. This change of scenery introduces familiarity and normality.

    Once she is settled again, put her back to bed. Children seldom have more than one bad dream each night, so it’s unlikely she’ll have them again.


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  • Try to see if anything’s troubling her
    8 / 9 Try to see if anything’s troubling her

    Young children are easily upset by things that may seem unimportant to adults, such as not being the best singer at nursery or even not being able to kick a ball when all her friends can.

    Talk to her about the key areas in her life – you may identify a trouble spot that could be responsible for the nightmare.

    (Photo: varandah/123RF.com)

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  • Stay with her until she falls asleep
    9 / 9 Stay with her until she falls asleep

    Don’t worry that this could become a habit – staying with her on this occasion won’t do her any harm. 

    Ask her about her nightmare the next morning. She might not remember what happened during the night, or even recall being upset, or that you gave her a cuddle.

    This is a natural defence mechanism and is hers mind’s way of protecting her from anxiety. But if she does remember, talk to her about what she dreamt, and about how she felt.


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