Why Do Kids Have Nightmares and Ways How to Get Rid of Them


I have always thought that people who have nightmares have experienced something terrible in life. I absolutely can’t understand why children have scary dreams. But, they have. If child’s screaming wakes you up in the middle of the night, you will be terrified for sure.

What can you do to help your little one? First of all, try to stay calm as much as possible. You should talk to her. Try to understand her fear. Believe her because that dream and fear are entirely real for her and don’t try to make fun of her nightmare. Assure your little one that everything is gone and that she is at her bed, safe and secure.

Nightmares in Children Are Not Rare

If nightmare continues to appear, you should begin to find a right solution for a problem because toddlers very often believe that lousy dream is a reality and will try to avoid going to bed the next night. Lack of sleep will lead to numerous additional issues and horror will continue in real life.

Every child experiences scary dreams from time to time. It seems that preschoolers (aged 3-6 years) have the most problems with bad dreams. The reason is probably their active imagination and the fact that during this period of life normal development of fear occurs. Consequently, about 50% of children of that age have nightmares as well as up to 20% kids between 6 and 12 years of age.

There is no difference among children which depends on IQ, behavioral or emotional problems, potential neurological problems, and family adversity. On the other hand, it can be related to particular sleep disorders and anxiety later in life.

[Related: Provide Baby Good Sleeping Environments]

What Is a Nightmare?

what is nightmares in kids

Nightmare is a bad dream which usually wakes your child up from sleep. It often involves particular persons, disturbing themes connected with ghosts and monsters, imagined threats, fear of injury, and sense of danger. This type of dreams seems entirely real to the child, and she clearly remembers what it was about.

All that can frighten and upset your kid because toddlers honestly believe that their dream is a reality. Sometimes older kids might experience a nightmare which didn’t wake them up, but they could remember in the morning what they were dreaming during the night. These dreams can be connected with stress or a traumatic event. The problem is that nightmares can make your child feels scared when she needs to go to sleep the next night.

What is a Night Terror?

It is crucial making a difference between nightmares and night terrors. The sleep terror is also a type of disturbed sleep but with a different pattern followed by episodes of extreme panic. A child who experiences a night terror feels confusing, fearfully moves around, and cries badly or scream. You can have difficulties to wake up the child, and you can expect that she won’t remember that horrifying dream.

You should be prepared that night terror doesn’t occur during regular child’s dreams. Nope. The night terror usually happens up to two hours after your little one goes to sleep. The weird thing is that your child is not entirely awake while screaming and crying, and she is probably not aware that you are sitting next to her. It is also possible that night terror occurs during a daytime nap. Remember, a night terror is always frightening to a child, but it can’t harm her. Just stay calm and be there for your little one until it pasts.

When Do Nightmares Occur?

We have two types of sleep – REM (rapid eye movements) and non-REM (non-rapid eye movements) which alternate in approximately 90-minute cycles. We usually dream during REM sleep when our brain is the most active early in the morning and in the middle of the night. Your child will experience nightmares mostly when REM period is more extended (during the second half of her night’s sleep). That means that child’s dream is still fresh and looks very realistic. It is natural that your little one feels upset and afraid.

Only after the fifth year of your child’s life, you can expect she can understand that her nightmare is nothing but a bad dream. Preschoolers begin to realize that dream, no matter how terrible it is, can’t hurt them. Unfortunately, that knowledge won’t prevent your child from feeling scared.

Why Do Kids Have Nightmares?

Why Do Kids Have Nightmares

No one can precisely say why children’s nightmares occur, but experts have an idea what usually causes them. For a healthy child, it is normal to have bad dreams about:

  • frightening events she has experienced and (or) seen during the day
  • dangerous animals like sharks, aggressive dogs, rats, or spiders
  • imaginary creatures such as monsters and ghosts

Depending on your child’s age and vocabulary, she can describe to you her bad dreams in the tiniest details. Sometimes it will be hard for your toddler to get back to sleep after she experiences a nightmare.

The possible reasons for the occurrence of kid’s nightmares could be various. I will list you the most common situations when you can expect your kid has a scary dream.

  • Your child is too tired
  • Your child is anxious and (or) worried
  • Your child doesn’t get enough sleep
  • Your child has an inadequate sleep routine
  • Your child is under the stress
  • Your child is a victim of peer violence
  • Conflicts in the family during the previous day
  • Family violence
  • Your child’s stage of development
  • Recent changes in her life (parent’s separation or divorce, remarriage of one or both parents, beginning of school, moving, a new neighborhood, a new baby)
  • Illness in the family
  • A post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic event
  • Fevers
  • Your child has watched a scary movie or seen something horrible on TV
  • Your child has read a frightening book
  • Psychological or genetic factors
  • A family history of nightmares (7% of children whose sibling and (or) parents have nightmares will also suffer from them)
  • Disorders such as mental retardation, diseases connected with a brain disorder, and depression
  • Certain medications (they can cause nightmares even after the child stops with the treatment)

Sometimes toddler’s nightmares occurrence for no reason at all

The occasional appearance of nightmares is pretty normal especially for a child with a vivid imagination, and they are a regular part of kid’s development. Very often scary dreams are a way for your child to deal with her worries and her way to manage things which are out of her control in reality. When your child learns how to deal with everyday problems, nightmares will become rarer, and they will eventually disappear.

Keep in mind that some kids can discover that parents let them sleep in family’s bed after nightmares, and can use nightmares as an effective tactic for avoiding sleeping alone or even as a way to escape their bedtime routine.

What to Do When a Nightmare Occurs In the Middle of the Night

what to do when nightmares happens

When your child experiences a scary dream, she will need calm reassurance from you that you will keep her safe. Sometimes you can expect your child comes to you after a nightmare, but in the most cases, you should go to her and convince your little one that everything is entirely all right. In such a situation, you have a few options:

  • To give your child a hug
  • To stay with her until she goes back to sleep
  • To cuddle her or give her a gentle massage
  • To sing her a lullaby
  • To talk with her about the scary dream for a short time
  • To leave both your and her bedroom doors open

To turn a night-light on

Don’t let your child get out of her bed and don’t allow her to come to yours. It is always better to stay with her in her room until she falls asleep again.

How to Prevent Nightmares

You can’t prevent your child’s nightmare, but you can encourage sweet dreams. Make your little one feels secure and relaxed before sleep. Try to establish a regular bedtime routine for her. I can list you a few tricks which will help your child to get rid of nightmares she suffers from.

  • Think carefully about what situations in your child’s life can be a reason for nightmares and try to solve them
  • Try to reduce child’s stress
  • Make child’s room relaxed, comfortable, and safe place
  • Establish a regular wake-up time and bedtime
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine
  • Consider letting nightlight on in the child’s room
  • Buy a cozy bed for your toddler
  • Let child’s pet sleeps in her room
  • Give her a ‘security object’ (a blanket or her favorite stuffed animal) to make her feel relaxed and safe
  • Sometimes dream-catcher can be helpful
  • Maybe it will be useful for your kid to share the room with her elder sibling(s)
  • Keep the door of your bedroom open to show your child that you are always close to her
  • Talk with your child about her problems and possible worries at some moment during the day when she is relaxed and feels safe
  • Don’t let your kid watch frightening TV news, especially any current affairs program

Don’t let your kid play video games and use a computer before bedtime

In any case, you should be careful. You know your child best, and you are the only one who can help her get a fight with scary dreams she has.

How to Stop Nightmares

If nightmares repeatedly occur, start writing a ‘sleep diary’. Maybe it can help you to discover a pattern of possible reasons for child’s scary dreams. There are some things you can do to help your child how to stop dreaming bad.

  • Teach your kid to take control and stop feel helpless
  • Provide your kid with examples of positive role models (read her stories about kids or animals who are afraid of the dark, but cope with their fears and conquer them)
  • Don’t laugh your kid if she fearful of ‘monsters’
  • Don’t look for ‘monsters’ (in the wardrobe or under the bed) because it is the sure way to convince your little one that you also believe that monsters exist and that you expect to find them in the room

Check on your child every five to ten minutes if your child is anxious about your leaving. It is better than to come to her bedroom when she starts crying or calling you. And there is a video shows how to stop your nightmares.

Techniques Which Can Help Your Child Copes a Nightmare

how to stop the kids nightmares

For a start, set ‘limits on fear’ to prevent your kid ‘being scared’ whenever she decides it can be useful for her. There are some useful techniques which can successfully help your child to deal with her scary dreams.

Fight with fear – Help your child to fight with her fear of the darkness. Play some fun games in the dark with your child such as searching for glowing things in the dark, a treasure hunt, or playing flashlight tag.

Draw a monster – You can ask her to draw her scary dream, cut off the paper, and throw it into the trash. It can be a way to give her nightmare a real value and gain the advantage over her fear.

Make magic – Preschoolers and young schoolers have a vivid imagination. For them, the ‘magic’ power of your love can solve every possible issue. ‘Kill’ the monster, turn it into smoke using a ‘magical whistle’, give your child a ‘magic wand’ that will kick out the ‘monster’ out of a dream.

Relaxation training – Teach your child how to apply techniques of relaxation training. With adequate relaxation strategies, she will learn how to calm down and relax at bedtime and consequently fall asleep peacefully (talk about your last vacation, let your kid imagines a relaxing scene of sunset, make her feel the sea waves and repose on the sand). The secret to the success of this technique is that no one can be scared and relaxed at the same time.

‘Rewrite’ a bad dream – Let your kid an idea how to give the happy end to the scary dream. Find a solution to how she can become a heroine who can fight a ‘monster’ successfully and win the ‘battle’ in the end.

Encourage child’s ideas – Encourage your child to help you find adequate and useful ideas on how to beat the ‘monster’ and become a hero in her nightmare.

A ‘star system’ – If your child discovers that she will get your full attention if she is scared, she will start being ‘scared’ regularly. Well, in that case, you should switch the scenario. After explaining to your little one that you are proud of her for being brave, set up a ‘star system’. That means that she will earn a star when she is a brave girl who sleeps on his own. Establish a reward for a certain number of winning stars (going to the ZOO, baking chocolate cookies, giving extra hours for watching the favorite cartoons, and so on).

[Related: Teach Child to Sleep Alone]

In most of the cases, kid’s nightmares are not something you should worry about too much. Only if scary dreams become extremely disturbing or they occur regularly for more than a month, consider visiting a psychologist or a counselor. He will help your child dealing with the nightmares while talking about the things bothering her.

It is likely that there is a relation between your kid’s scary dreams and something which bother her in reality. In some rare cases, some frequent nightmares may be connected with a kid’s physical condition. If it is a case, talk to your doctor.


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