Sleep Tight – Don’t Let the Nightmares Bite!

There are many causes for night-time wakings in toddlers.  Many of those are behavioral; however, it is not uncommon for children to start experiencing nightmares and night terrors at this age, as well.  Unlike children who wake up with phantom aches and pains, or who want a snuggle or a glass of water, nightmares and night terrors can be a little more tricky to deal with.

Nightmares tend to peak between the ages of three and six years old. Typical causes include being overtired, a stressful life change (starting school, a move, a new sibling), or a scary event or experience (a TV show, movie, or news event).  When a child wakes from a nightmare, she is able to tell you what her dream was about and that she feels scared.

Night terrors, on the other hand, peak at around age three and a half and tend to occur earlier on in the sleep cycle. (Many scientists say that night terrors occur around 90 minutes after falling asleep.)  When a child experiences a night terror, she is unable to communicate with you, may cry or scream but is otherwise still asleep.  It is imperative that you not try to wake a child from this state.  She will most likely settle down after a few minutes or as long as 30 minutes.

A few tips for managing nightmares:

  • As always, make sure your child is well-rested! If your child is waking repeatedly with nightmares, this is a good indication that he’s overtired – adjust bedtimes and naps.

  • Teach your child coping skills so that he can learn to manage his fears independently – you won’t always be there to help. Talk about a plan during the day (he can snuggle with a stuffed animal or lovey, he can sing himself a happy song, he can think about happy things….).

  • Make sure your child has a night-light in his room. (We also like the Cloud b nightlight which has a timer. If a child wakes in the middle of the night and is scared, he can turn it back on himself and “count stars.”

  • Help your child become comfortable in the dark. Play games in a darkened room and teach him that there’s nothing to fear. Flashlight tag is always popular in my house!

  • Fill a spray bottle with water and put a label on the outside that says: No More Nightmare Spray. You and your child can spray the room to keep it “nightmare free” before bed. Kids can have fun with it and it gives them a sense of control. Similarly, children can check under beds and in closets if they are afraid that monsters are hiding. Keep it light!

  • Try to stay positive before bed. Talk about things that your child can look forward to and things that make her happy. Don’t talk about the previous night’s nightmare or scary thoughts right before bed. Research shows that talking about happy things before bed leads to happier dreams.

  • Read some books about staying in bed. A few favorites:

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