Nobody likes them, but we’ve all had them. Nightmares that we can’t seem to wake up from and, when we do, we don’t want to go back to sleep. Nightmares can occur in older children and adolescents, but are extremely common in younger children, especially during the preschool years. They are part of normal development, as children’s imaginations develop and they begin to understand that there are things that exist that can hurt them. They might be scared to go to bed, which can be challenging when it comes to getting your child settled for a good sleep. However, finding out more about nightmares can help you and your child sleep easy.

What Causes Your Child to Feel Scared of Going to Sleep?

Sometimes, nightmares can seem like they come out of the blue. However, they can be a result of a frightening experience, or even from watching the news. Your child could also be affected by family conflict and parental anxiety. Anything that makes a child more upset is going to make their fears worse, making them feel more anxious and going to sleep more difficult. Children also tend to have different fears at different development stages. Younger children are more often afraid of monsters in the closet and other imaginary creatures. Older children are more likely to fear being hurt by more realistic dangers, such as burglars or a natural disaster.

Some children learn that saying they’re afraid is a great way to stall or avoid bedtime – watch out for this. However, some children with sleep issues really have an anxiety disorder; these are generally children who worry a lot during the day or have things they’re anxious about. Ask if there’s anything on their mind if they’re having trouble sleeping.

How Should You Respond to Your Child’s Nightmares?

Children need reassurance after having a nightmare – especially younger children. As your child gets older, though, you’ll want to start teaching them coping skills that they can use when they’re anxious or scared. This is great for when you’re not there for them if they have a nightmare, such as at a sleepover. No matter your child’s age, though, reassurance will go a long way to help them feel safe and secure. For younger children, a security object, such as a favourite stuffed animal or a blanket, can help a child feel relaxed and safe in bed. You could also leave a low nightlight on in your child’s bedroom. Having your child imagine a relaxing scene, like being on the beach, will help them relax after a scary dream.

Children can also use their imagination to help them settle down and fall back to sleep. Suggest to your child that they should imagine a different ending to the nightmare. Hanging a dream catcher over your child’s bed so that it catches bad dreams can also help to reassure them.

What’s the Difference Between Nightmares and Night Terrors?

Nightmares and night terrors are both scary and can disturb sleep, but they’re not the same thing.

Nightmares occur during REM sleep, when the brain is most prone to vivid dreaming. This means that they often happen later at night or in the early-morning hours, when the brain reaches that part of the sleep cycle. Night terrors, on the other hand, tend to occur earlier, during non-REM sleep.

Nightmares are vividly recalled. Someone who experiences a nightmare will wake up immediately with a clear, detailed memory of the bad dream. Someone who experiences a night terror may shout, sleepwalk, or appear scared for several minutes before relaxing back into sleep. Later, they’ll only have a vague memory of the dream. It’s likely that the sleeper won’t even remember it in the morning.

Night terrors are more common in children, especially if they’re between the ages of four and eight. Night terrors typically go away on their own as a child gets older, while nightmares can affect any age.

What Do You Do If Your Child Says They’re Too Scared to Go to Sleep?

  • Try to understand your child’s fears – don’t dismiss or make fun of them.
  • Reassure your child, and remind them that they’re safe.
  • Teach your child coping skills, such as thinking positive thoughts.
  • Make being in the dark fun – play flashlight tag, or have a treasure hunt and search for things that glow in the dark.
  • Use your imagination to fight imaginary fears, like monsters lurking in the closet or under the bed. You could have “monster spray”, or let your pet sleep with your child if you have one. When possible, let your child be actively involved in coming up with ways to help them gain a sense of control.
  • A nightlight can help – if they don’t prevent your child from falling asleep.
  • Leave the door open slightly so that your child doesn’t feel isolated from the rest of the family.
  • Keep your child away from scary TV shows, films, videos, or stories.
  • Teach your child relaxation techniques, like imagining a relaxing scene. This will give them something else to think about while lying in bed.
  • Talk to your child about their fears during the day and how they can be less frightened at night. This can help build their self-confidence; if they feel secure during the day, they will feel secure at night, too.
  • Encourage your child to stay in bed – this will help them realise that they really are safe and can overcome their fears. It’s much better for you to join them in their room than for them to join you. However, don’t stay with them until they fall asleep too often, or even two nights in a row – they may become dependent on your presence. If your child gets up in the middle of the night and comes into your room, take them back to their room and gently tuck them into bed.
  • Check on them – if your child’s anxious about you leaving, check on them frequently. It’s better to check on them on a predictable schedule (every 5 – 10 minutes), so that your coming and going is not based on them crying or calling out for you.

If frightening dreams are keeping your child awake at night for several nights, or weeks, in a row, consider talking to your doctor. Sleep disruptions can negatively affect daytime energy levels, and children need a good sleep every night. Your doctor can help find a solution to get your little one sleeping soundly.

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