Nightmares, and the anxiety and fear that come with them, are an all-too-common occurrence in childhood. It’s not unusual for children to start experiencing nightmares as young as age three, and to battle them well into their teen years. While they are an accepted and normal part of childhood, we believe that dealing with them in age-appropriate ways can help to lessen children’s nightmares and anxiety, and make bedtime a more peaceful event for the whole household. Here are our top ten tricks for coping with nightmares and creating a harmonious sleep relationship.
- Dismissing your child’s nightmares and anxiety is harmful and can cause future problems. We recommend that you acknowledge your child’s nightmares and fears, and that you discuss them during the day when they don’t seem as scary. Ask your child what he is afraid of and why he thinks he’s having nightmares (if he’s old enough to verbalize this). Assure him that nightmares are normal and a sign that he has a great imagination. This is a wonderful opportunity to lessen your child’s apprehensions while also gaining insight into what may be bothering him and inducing the issue.
- Discussing all dreams regularly, good and bad, shows that good dreams happen more frequently, that everyone has nightmares, and that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to discuss our bad dreams and fears. Talking with children about their worries alleviates their stress and anxiety, which in turn will likely reduce the nightmares they experience.
- Change the ending! If your child’s nightmares are based on a recurring character or theme (like snakes, monsters, or falling out of bed) encourage them to create stories with alternate endings where they “solve” the problem and become their own hero. Snakes wearing hats and talking in funny voices aren’t very scary, and monsters who can be vanquished by your child’s super special magical powers will likely disappear from their nightmares. Falling out of bed is a common dream, but falling out of a castle onto the clouds, or onto a big fluffy marshmallow surrounded by kittens, sounds more fun and may induce some giggles. If your child enjoys drawing, encourage him to draw these new endings so he can post the pictures around the house as a reminder that he’s in charge of his dreams.
- You may be able to help your child avoid nightmares by creating a comfortable and secure bedroom that welcomes your little one into slumber. Choose soft and cozy bedding, décor that makes your child happy, and a favorite stuffed animal or blanket to sleep with. Get down on your child’s level and look around her room to see if there is anything that may be scaring her once the lights go out. A fun and colorful troll doll or stuffed animal that brings joy during the day could look like a monster in the shadows, and with a little one’s imagination, lead to nightmares. Allow your child to help you make their room an environment that is soothing both during the day and at bedtime.
- Creating a bedtime routine for your child will allow them to mentally process that they’re going to sleep soon, which is beneficial for particularly anxious children. After they brush their teeth, take a bath, and get into pajamas, do a calming but fun activity that helps them unwind for the night. We recommend reading favorite books, telling stories, talking about the day’s events or upcoming activities, or listening to soft music together. Avoid sweets and scary movies/video games before bed, and ensure that your child is getting adequate sleep for his individual needs.
- Children who are afraid of the dark (one of the most common fears and causes of frequent nightmares in children) may benefit from nightlights in their room, the hallway outside their room leading to the bathroom, and the bathroom itself. You can also place a flashlight or stuffed animal that lights up and turns off automatically after a few minutes on your child’s bedside table so he can have extra illumination after waking from a nightmare. Bonus points if the stuffed animal plays soft music or the flashlight casts stars or other fun shapes on the ceiling as a distraction.
- Encourage your little one to stay in their own bed during a nightmare, or set a timer for 15-20 minutes of snuggle time in your bed after which they can return to their room secure in your love and affection. This practice helps your child develop coping skills so they’re not caught in a cycle of anxiety and fear about going to sleep each night and potentially having nightmares. This exercise also gives your child a measure of control over his own life, making him feel big, strong, and brave in the face of adversity.
- Defeat the monsters that pop up in your child’s nightmares by developing fun and creative ways for you and your child to banish the boogeyman before bed. Fill a spray bottle with water and calming lavender essential oil and spray this “Bye Bye Monster Spray” around your child’s room each night so the monsters won’t appear. Alternatively, take a cardboard box or bag, and before bed go through your child’s room “collecting” monsters so the room is cleared of all bad creatures. Fill the box or bag with crumpled paper and rocks beforehand so it has some heft, and have your child help you take the monster bag/box out to the garbage each night. Finally, you can create songs or chants (or find some online) that you can recite each night that will scare away the monsters and ensure they don’t bother your little one.
- A beloved family pet is often the best way to chase away nightmares and fears about bedtime. If your family dog or cat makes your child feel safer, consider allowing the animal to sleep in her room, even if it’s just until she falls asleep or on a temporary basis when nightmares are at their worst. Some children believe they are immune to nightmares when their dog is near, and others find the process of self-calming and going back to sleep easier when their furry friend is nearby.
- Stressful life events like moving, divorce, a new baby, going to a new daycare, changing schools, a death in the family, or a best friend moving away can trigger nightmares. This is perfectly normal. If the nightmares stem from a trauma like a serious illness, surgery, or car accident, a visit to your child’s pediatrician for a check-up and discussion are likely in order.
Nightmares, while common and perfectly normal, can be difficult and stressful for the family unit. We hope these tricks help you and your child overcome the nightmare battle and instill confidence in your child that he/she can handle life’s challenges.
If you believe your child’s nightmares are due to trauma and would like to schedule an appointment, please contact us today at Woodburn Pediatric Clinic.