5 ways to help when your kid has nightmares

By Dr Richard C. Woolfson   — March 08, 2019
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    Your child would probably have a nightmare at some stage – a dream that is so frightening that she wakes up crying, shivering and distressed. Occasional nightmares seem to be part of normal development, so there is no need to be unduly worried.

    Related: Coping with nightmares

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    Nightmares can be triggered by different factors, depending on the individual child. For instance, eating cheese last thing at night, watching a horror movie (or an adult television programme) just before bedtime, stress or even the start of an illness can cause a young child to experience nightmares.

    Related: 5 common sleep problems in children

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    These are the most common causes, and if your preschool child is prone to bad dreams, it is wise to look closely at what she does in the hour or two prior to bedtime.

    There may be a simple solution, such as changing her evening diet or modifying her television viewing habits.

    Related: 7 ways to help when your child has a nightmare


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    If your child does have a nightmare, don’t try to shake her out of it. She may not be fully awake when she cries out – she could still be in the middle of the disturbing dream.

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

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    Instead, provide reassurance. Once you realise she is having a nightmare, speak to her gently in a soothing, reassuring voice. You can also stroke her forehead or cheek softly. Even if she is asleep, she will be sensitive to such loving physical contact.

    Try these steps.

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    1 Tell her quietly – but repeatedly – that she is fine, that everything is all right, and that you are with her to keep her safe.

    Also, stay calm. Watching your child have a troubling dream may be very upsetting for you, but bear in mind that nothing dreadful will happen to her as a result of this nightmare.

    At worst, she will tremble from the effects, and at best, she will forget all about the experience by the time she wakes up in the morning.

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    2 If she does not wake up from the effects of the nightmare, let her stay asleep. It is perfectly common for a preschooler to sleep right through a disturbing nightmare without waking up even once – this is perhaps the best possible outcome.

    So, do what you can to avoid waking your child. If she does wake up and babbles incoherently, listen to what she says. She may have trouble distinguishing her dream from reality at that precise moment, and she may talk as though she is still in the dream.

    Instead of trying to make sense of her comments, respond by reassuring her.

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    3 Assuming her nightmare is over and she is awake, you could take her out of her bed.

    She could go to the toilet or head to the kitchen for a glass of milk and a biscuit. This change of scenery will probably make her feel better because it introduces familiarity and normality.

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    4 Then, tuck her into her own bed. If you prefer to take her into your bed on this occasion, be careful that you don’t inadvertently encourage this to become a regular habit.

    It is best not to keep her up for too long because she may lose her fatigue altogether. Emphasise that she is unlikely to have another bad dream that night – children seldom have more than one nightmare each night. 

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    5 Lastly, try to discover if there is anything troubling her. Young children are easily upset by little incidents such as falling out with a friend or failing to paint as well as the others in the nursery.

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

    (Photos: 123RF.com)

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