Nightmares are scary dreams that awaken a child. Occasional bad dreams are normal at all ages after about 6 months of age. When infants 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 a nightmare is and put themselves back to sleep without waking their parents.

Nightmare Causes

Everyone dreams 4 or 5 times each night. Some dreams are good, and some are bad. Dreams help the mind process complicated events or information. The content of nightmares usually relates to developmental challenges: Toddlers have nightmares about separation from their parents; preschoolers, about monsters or the dark; and school-age children, about death or real dangers. Frequent nightmares may be caused by violent television shows or movies.

Dealing With Nightmares

Reassure and cuddle your child. Explain to your child that she was having a bad dream. Sit on the bed until your child is calm. Offer to leave the bedroom door open (never close the door on a fearful child). Provide a night-light, especially if your child has fears of the dark. Most children return to sleep fairly quickly.

Help your child talk about the bad dreams during the day. Your child may not remember what the dream was about unless you can remind her of something she said about it when she woke up. If your child was dreaming about falling or being chased, reassure her that lots of children dream about that. If your child has the same bad dream over and over again, help her imagine a good ending to the bad dream. Encourage your child to use a strong person or a magic weapon to help her overcome the bad person or event in the dream. You may want to help your child draw pictures or write stories about the new happier ending for the dream. Working through a bad fear often takes several conversations about it.

Protect your child against frightening movies and television shows. For many children, violent or horror movies cause bedtime fears and nightmares. These fears can persist for months or years. Absolutely forbid these movies before 13 years of age. Between 13-17 years, the maturity and sensitivity of your child must be considered carefully in deciding when she is ready to deal with the uncut versions of R-rated movies. Be vigilant about slumber parties or Halloween parties. Tell your child to call you if the family she is visiting is showing scary movies.

CALL OUR OFFICE During regular hours if:

  • The nightmares become worse.
  • The nightmares are not minimal after using this approach for 2 weeks.
  • The fear interferes with daytime activities. • Your child has several fears.
  • You have other concerns or questions.