Understanding Childhood Nightmares

According to Cleveland Clinic, as many as 50% of children between 3-6 years of age have nightmares that seem very real. With their expansive imaginations and lack of real-world context, a scary dream can seem especially vivid to a young child. They can impact their sleep overall, and increase stress.

Here are some facts about childhood nightmares, and ways you can help your child.

Why do children have nightmares?

Children of all ages can have nightmares, though they’re most common between the ages of 3 and 6. The exact cause of childhood nightmares is unknown, but they may happen more frequently if a child is stressed, overly tired, or has experienced a traumatic event. Additionally, some medications may have a side effect of vivid nightmares.

What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors?

Night terrors seem similar to nightmares, however, nightmares tend to occur during deep REM sleep, while night terrors happen soon after a child falls asleep. When a child is experiencing a night terror, they may appear to be awake and acting frightened. They may talk, shout, or move around in bed.

Night terrors appear more dramatic and immediate to parents. However, a child experiencing a night terror will often calm down on their own and continue sleeping. It may help to gently comfort your child, but waking them could make it more difficult for them to fall asleep again. Night terrors are often not remembered by the child the next day.

How to help your child cope with nightmares

Give comfort with a hug or a familiar book after a nightmare. Stay calm and pragmatic so they know everything is okay. Children understand that dreams aren’t real, but they still need reassurance that everything is normal.
Teach coping skills to help your child feel more secure. While showing your child there are no monsters is reassuring in the moment, it could inadvertently reinforce the idea that monsters exist. Instead, talk about their nightmare, offer a stuffed animal or nightlight. Some families encourage their child to draw a picture of their bad dream, and then throw the drawing away as a symbolic gesture.
Help to reduce nightmares with a relaxing bedtime routine in a cozy, secure environment. Avoid scary books, movies, or TV shows before bed.
Try to reduce the amount of stress in your child’s daily life, and talk through their anxieties with them during the day when they feel less scared.
Should you see your child’s doctor about nightmares?

Nightmares are a common occurrence for young children. However, talk to your child’s doctor if your child is very anxious during the day, is experiencing significant sleep disruption, showing signs of other emotional or behavior issues, or has been through a traumatic event.