Avoid disrupted sleep due to nightmares

Author Name: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Dreams - Nightmares - Night Terrors

A nightmare is a scary dream that is so frightening it completely wakes up a sleeping child and leaves him/her scared afterwards.

They are quite common and usually harmless but by recognizing the bad dream, reassuring your child and using a few helpful techniques you can avoid most related sleep troubles .

Although more usual in toddlers and bigger kids, they can occur as baby sleep disorders from as early as 1 year old.

(Note that a night terror is quite different from a nightmare. A night terror is not a dream but rather how a child feels and reacts after waking from a deep sleep.)

How to recognize nightmares

When your baby or toddler has a nightmare, you will know: she will wake up, be frightened and cry or scream. She will need your reassurance before she can go back to sleep.

Usually they occur in the second part of the night, towards early morning . If your child wakes up screaming in the first part of the night, she may be having night terrors in stead - (or simply need a night feed ... ;)).

He/she will normally remember what happened, also the following morning.

Anxiety is a common cause of nightmares . That includes scary images or experiences during the day but also being afraid of the dark or of being alone or going to bed alone.

How to help your baby

What you can do to prevent nightly troubles because of scary dreams :

  • Make sure your baby sleeps in a safe environment that also reassures her . Install a night light. Leave the bedroom door open when possible and assure her you're always near during the night. Use a gentle and relaxed bedtime routine.
  • From when your child is very young, even before¬†having nightmares, talk about dreams from time to time .

    When you pick her up after sleeping, ask her if she's been dreaming, what she has seen while sleeping. I used to jokingly ask if they dreamed about me this time?

    This is a really simple way to learn that it's completely normal, and good, to have dreams. Also tell her that all she sees is not real, rather that it is like a story on TV. This will help her understand scary dreams later on.
  • Briefly talk the dream through right after it happened : let your child tell you what she saw.

    If she's too young to do that, you can do it for her: " You had a bad dream, right? I think you saw something you didn't like and it may have made you feel uneasy. That's why you woke up. I know it's not nice but luckily it was just a dream ... ".

    No need to go into full detail, the main point now is to both acknowledge and reassure her. If something in her room scared her, now is a good time to check together: nothing under the bed, the cuddly toy is actually a nice soft one.
  • Bring her back to bed once reassured - or stay with her until she's reassured . Tell her you'll come back and check on her soon (and of course truly do so, whether she's already back asleep or not).
  • Before she goes to sleep again, help her get rid of the scary thoughts (which can still linger) by provoking fun images.

    Talk to her about something she likes and try to bring up those images in her mind. For example: Let me tell you about swimming dolphins. Dolphins are very good swimmers, can you see them, in the ocean? They swim and swim, and then jump high, and swim some more ...

    This is a powerful way to get rid of the scary images and makes it easier to settle and drift off again, it works a bit like a simple meditation.
  • The next morning, talk about the dream again, this time in more detail. You can also have her make a drawing of what she saw if she likes.
  • Try and identify what scared her most. It will usually be an imagined animal or scary person, but it can also be something or someone real, or something that happened.

    Through talking, or looking at the objects or images that scared your baby together during the day, you may be able to relieve some of the fear.

Dreams - Nightmares - Night Terrors