Springdale Mason Pediatrics

Sleep - Nightmares

Definition

  • Nightmares are scary dreams that wake a child from sleep
  • Occasional bad dreams are normal at all ages
  • Peak age is 3 to 12 years
  • Nightmares can start as young as 6 months of age

Call or Return If

  • Nightmares become worse
  • Nightmares are not improved after using this technique for 2 weeks
  • The fear from the bad dream interferes with daytime activities
  • Your child has several fears
  • You have other concerns or questions

About This Topic

Symptoms

  • Children wake up when they have a nightmare. They usually are fully awake and not confused.
  • When infants and toddlers have a nightmare, they cry and scream until someone comes to them.
  • When preschoolers have a nightmare, they usually cry and run into their parents' bedroom.
  • Older children begin to understand what bad dreams are. They put themselves back to sleep without waking their parents.

Causes

  • Everyone dreams 4 or 5 times each night. Some dreams are good, some are bad.
  • Dreams help the mind process complex information and events from our daily lives.
  • The content of nightmares usually relates to current developmental challenges such as:
  • Infants have nightmares about separation from their parents, strangers or even learning to walk.
  • Toddlers have nightmares about being left at child care, barking dogs, etc.
  • Preschoolers have nightmares about monsters or the dark
  • School-age children have nightmares about death or real dangers
  • Frequent nightmares may be caused by violent TV shows or movies.

After Care Advice

Reassure and Comfort Your Child:
  • Explain to your child that she was having a "bad dream".
  • For older kids, add "you are safe and we are nearby".
  • Sit on the bed or hold your child until she is calm.
  • If they want to talk about the dream, listen for what they are afraid might happen.
  • Most children return to sleep fairly quickly.
Help Your Child Talk About the Bad Dream During the Day:
  • Talking about nightmares makes it less likely that they will recur.
  • You may need to remind your child of something he said to start the conversation.
  • If your child was dreaming about falling or being chased, reassure him that lots of children dream about that.
  • If your child has the same bad dream over and over again, it may relate to a stressor in real life. Try to determine what that challenge is. Then, help your child find better ways to cope with it.
  • If the recurrent bad dream is about something unreal, such as a monster, help him imagine a good ending to the bad dream. Encourage your child to imagine a powerful person or a magic weapon to help him overcome the bad parts of the dream. You may want to help your child draw pictures or write a story about the new ending for the dream.
  • Working through a bad fear often takes several conversations about it.
How to Prevent Some Nightmares:
  • Provide a nightlight, especially if your child has fears of the dark. Having a flashlight in bed may also help.
  • Offer to leave the bedroom door open, though some children feel safer with it closed.
  • Younger children are helped by a security object (lovey).
Protect Your Child from Scary Movies and TV Shows:
  • For many children, violent shows or horror movies cause bedtime fears and nightmares. These fears can persist for months or years.
  • Absolutely forbid any scary movies before 13 years of age.
  • Between 13 and 17 years, the maturity and sensitivity of teens varies. Decide carefully if your child is ready to deal with the uncut versions of R-rated movies. Remember that horror films are meant to frighten adults.
  • Be vigilant about slumber parties or Halloween parties. Tell your child to call you if the family he is visiting is showing scary movies.
What to Expect:
  • Bad dreams normally occur off and on again throughout life.
  • Frequent nightmares are not normal.

Author: Barton Schmitt MD, FAAP
Copyright 2000-2020 Schmitt Pediatric Guidelines LLC
Disclaimer: This health information is for educational purposes only. You the reader assume full responsibility for how you choose to use it.
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