Most children will experience nightmares or night terrors at some point in their childhood, but many grow out of them by the time they reach the age of 8. Nightmares can start when your child is as young as 2 years old and may reach their peak between the ages of 3-6 years old.
Although nightmares happen at any time during the night, they are most common in the later stages of your child's sleep cycle. Nightmares or scary dreams often cause your child to feel scared or anxious but the good thing is they don't cause any long-term psychological harm to your child.
Your child may only have a few nightmares every year, or in some cases, they may suffer from frequent nightmares. Research has shown that nightmares most commonly occur when your child has experienced a stressful or traumatic event.
How Nightmares Affect Children
Nightmares predominantly occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the final stage of the human sleep cycle but these cycles occur during various parts of the night.
Bad dreams differ from child to child, but they often include elements from the day mixed with scary things such as monsters, ghosts, or people who are a threat to their safety. Other nightmares may involve your child being chased, bullied, or mistreated.
Your child might wake up from a nightmare by shouting, screaming, or becoming hysterical. Rapid breathing, sweating and dilated pupils are also signs that your child has had a nightmare too.
Nightmares tend to make your child feel helpless or anxious, and if your child experiences frequent nightmares, they can develop sleep disorders such as insomnia which is linked to feelings of dread over falling asleep and having a bad dream.
What causes a child to have frequent nightmares?
No one knows exactly what causes nightmares. Dreams - and nightmares - seem to be the way humans process their thoughts and feelings about everyday life and the stresses. This is the same for children and adults alike.
Nightmares in children are most often triggered by the below factors:
Stress or anxiety
Some nightmares occur when your child is dealing with significant changes. Factors such as starting a new school, moving house, or even the birth of a new sibling can all lead to bad dreams in children.
Sometimes a nightmare is your child's reaction to trauma - anything like a natural disaster, accident, or even an injury like a broken bone can cause nightmares in children. If your child is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) it's very likely they will experience nightmares more frequently.
For some children, especially those with creative imagination, being exposed to scary TV programs or books before bedtime can also cause nightmares.
Changes in your child's sleep schedule can also trigger nightmares. Irregular sleeping patterns, sleep regressions and things such as teething can all lead to nightmares in your child.
Mental health disorders
Anxiety and other mental health disorders have also been linked to nightmares in your little one.
What steps can I take to reduce the risk of nightmares in my child?
If your child is having regular nightmares, I would recommend you keep a log and track them. Take note of anything your child can recall, the time of the nightmare, and its duration. In addition, start keeping an activity and food tracker to see if there is any correlation between something that is happening in the daytime that is affecting your child's sleep.
There are some additional steps you can take to try and prevent nightmares in your child, including:
Ensuring your child gets a good night's sleep
Children often need more sleep than they regularly get. Ensuring your child gets adequate sleep throughout the night can help cut down the number, and intensity of nightmares. Additional sleep opportunity, putting them to bed earlier, for a child who is having regular nightmares is the first step to take.
Reassure your child
When your child has a nightmare, it's important you comfort and reassure them. Stay with your child until they fall back asleep and consider leaving their door ajar to show your child that your home is safe and that you are close by.
Keep your bedtime routine light and happy
If your child has an active imagination and is prone to having a bad dream now and then, try keeping their bedtime light and happy. Around 60 minutes before they go to bed, ensure that anything you watch on TV or read is positive and upbeat. Try to avoid material that might be upsetting or distressing for your little one.
Talk to your child
If there is a theme to the nightmares, try talking to your child about it. The dreams might commonly be about starting a new school or getting answers wrong so try and work to identify these situations and see how they can be rectified.
Medication is rarely used to treat nightmare disorders in children, however, there are some herbal remedies, such as essential oils, that you can buy over the counter to help your little one drift off into a peaceful slumber. Sleep research has shown that lavender-infused sleep sprays can help your child to relax and reduce bedtime anxiety.
How can I overcome my child's nighttime fears?
Fear of the dark, monsters under the bed, or anxiety about sleeping are all very common in children at some stage throughout their lives. There are plenty of great ways that you can help your child to overcome their fears, which will offer your child comfort and should all allow your child to fall and stay asleep nightmare free.
Identify your child's fear
What is your child scared of? Listen to what they're scared of and ask open-ended questions to understand why it's having such an effect on their sleep. Although your child's fears can seem silly, don't laugh at them. What may seem trivial to you, is very real for your child so try to reassure them that things are OK.
Build-up your child's self confidence
During the day work on activities that help to build up your child's self-confidence. For example, have your child talk about what scares them at night. This may help you to understand them better and find ways for your child to combat them at night.
If you are experiencing regular nightmares with your little one, and nothing you do is helping, consider consulting a healthcare professional. Make sure you bring your diary of what's been happening so that you can show your doctor the frequency of your child's nightmares.