Your three year-old — who used to literally sleep like a baby — is suddenly waking up night after night complaining of dreams about “bad guys” (or monsters, or aliens, or whatever the fear du jour is). He’s scared, clingy, and crying…and he wants to spend the rest of the night in your bed. Is that normal? And perhaps more pertinent: Should you let him?
“The peak age for nightmares is around three to four years old until about eight years old,” Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and director of the Behavioral Sleep Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, tell SheKnows. So yes, it’s all pretty normal.
It also makes sense: According to the National Sleep Foundation, a vivid imagination develops during the preschool years, which can cause an uptick in bad dreams. The question of how to handle your kiddo’s nighttime fears, though, is much more complicated. If you let your child into your bed, you risk creating a habit that’s hard to break. But if you send them back to their room, they might spend the rest of the night in fear, keeping everyone in the house awake.
Understanding why kids have bad dreams in the first place goes a long way toward helping them with their nightly fears — and thankfully, there are a lot of things you can do to offer comfort and reassurance (so you both get more sleep).
What causes nightmares in kids?
There are actually several reasons why your toddler, preschooler, or grade-school child might be waking up with frequent nightmares.
They saw something scary on TV.
Any kind of scary movie, TV show, image, or other media that has triggered the fear response in a child could end up being involved in a nightmare, Gary Kramer, M.D., a Miami-based pediatrician, tells SheKnows. Because today’s kids are hyper-connected to the internet, they could accidentally come across something scary almost anywhere (like while watching Peppa Pig on YouTube…eesh).
And the scary thing could even be media that’s simply inappropriate for their age, like watching a superhero movie with an older sibling. Just because it isn’t “scary” for your nine-year-old doesn’t mean it can’t terrify your three-year-old, who may not have the ability to process what they’re seeing.
Certified pediatric sleep consultant Jamie Engelman, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, tells SheKnows that “younger children are still working on separating fantasy from reality, which can exacerbate fears [like wondering if] monsters are real.”
They’re going through some daytime stress.
You recently moved into a new home. Your child is starting school for the first time. They overheard friends talking about something violent on the news. Whatever it is, the real-life drama has turned into a literal nightmare.
Childhood dreams are often manifestations of the very real stressors children experience in daytime hours — and what’s stressful for kids is different from what’s stressful for adults, since kids of all ages are still trying to figure out how the world works.
“The older children get, the more they are exposed to the realities that there are things in this world that can hurt them,” says Engelman. “Whereas younger children may have nightmares about fantastical or imaginary things, older children tend to dream about more realistic fears like fires or burglars.”
They’re not getting enough sleep.
Nightmares happen during REM sleep (i.e. the sleep that happens about 90 minutes after you fall asleep), so Kramer says one of the biggest reasons kids have nighttime disturbances is because they’re actually not getting enough restorative sleep. The more overtired your child gets — whether it’s due to being overscheduled or not having a consistent bedtime routine — the more likely it is their REM sleep will become fragmented and they’ll have nightmares.
They’re playing on the iPad before bed.
Kramer also points to the correlation between the blue light from screens (like TVs or tablets) and melatonin, a naturally-produced hormone that promotes sleep.
“Melatonin is integral to sleep, but blue light suppresses it,” he explains. “As a pediatrician, I advise parents to make a rule of no screens at least an hour prior to bedtime.”
Researchers at Harvard have been studying the effects of blue light on circadian rhythms; in one study, exposure to blue light was shown to suppress melatonin and shift circadian rhythms for longer than exposure to green light.
What you can do
Now that you have a better idea of what may be causing your child’s nightmares, the next step is figuring out how to cope. Here are six ways to get your child slumbering more peacefully.
1) Ask yourself if your child can fall asleep independently.
“If your child needs your assistance to fall asleep, they will probably have a higher incidence of nightmares,” says Schneeberg.
Why? Because when kids can’t fall asleep independently, they easily become overtired — which leads to fragmented sleep — and often find themselves waking up without the thing they need to feel safe (i.e. you). Schneeberg says that teaching your child to fall asleep independently at bedtime can go a long way toward decreasing nightmares.
2) Help them feel safe in their bed.
If your child always wants to come into your bed after a nightmare, then their bed may not feel like a safe place. According to Schneeberg, you have a few options for changing that. You can set your child up with a small light near their bed and some quiet, comforting objects (like a book or drawing pad) to encourage them to work through their anxiety before falling back to sleep. You can also give them a change of scenery.
“If your eight year-old wakes up in a panic, it’s okay to take them out for a glass of water in the kitchen and wait until they’re relaxed before bringing them back to bed,” Schneeberg says. “You don’t want them to associate their bed with bad feelings or condition them to be afraid of their bedroom.”
3) Remind them that dreams aren’t real, but don’t dismiss their fears.
If your child wants to talk through their nightmares with you, conversation can be a great tool for helping them get back to bed faster.
But it’s best to follow your child’s lead here, says Engelman: “I recommend that parents allow their child to tell them about the bad dream if the child offers (don’t try to cut them off and tell them not to think about it), but also don’t force them to recall it or ask questions encouraging them to remember more.”
And while you should definitely reassure them that dreams aren’t real, Engelman says a bad dream will feel real to your child, so don’t be too quick to gloss over their feelings.
“Instead of discounting that it was ‘just a dream,’” Engelman suggests, “I recommend empathizing with how scary it must have felt — but following up with the facts [by saying something like] ‘There’s no scary guy in your room.’”
4) Make sure they have a consistent sleep routine and bedtime.
Because sleep deprivation leads to disturbances and more frequent nightmares, Kramer says one of the best ways to tackle bad dreams is to give your child a consistent and reasonable bedtime routine — specifically one that allows for time to unwind after activities, homework, dinner, and screen time. He adds that a child in the typical nightmare range of three to eight years old needs, on average, anywhere from 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day (including naps, if your child is still taking them).
5) Set boundaries.
If your child’s nightmares are really intense, and you find that bringing your child into your room is the only thing that works, Schneeberg says you should create some rules about when and how it happens to prevent forging bad habits. (Some kids, she warns, use nightmares as “admission tickets” into their parents’ bedroom, which is not something you want to encourage.)
“You can have a little spot in your bedroom for child to sleep that’s not your bed,” she explains, “like a spare bed, sleeping bag, or little nest area.”
But this should only be used on really bad nights, and parents should establish a frequency ahead of time for how often this tactic can be used (say, once per week). Otherwise, try to rely more heavily on returning your child to their bed and simply sitting quietly nearby until they’ve settled down.
6) Give them tools for coping with general anxiety.
Kids who know how to handle daytime anxiety will be better equipped for dealing with anxiety in the middle of the night. Engelman says practicing relaxation and coping skills for general anxiety (which can be a precursor to nightmares) in age-appropriate ways can be part of the bedtime routine to help your child wind down. You can do this through social skills books, kid-friendly meditation, calming music, or a mindfulness app (just make sure they turn off their tablet an hour before heading to bed!).
When to do more
Although nightmares are a perfectly normal stage of child development, there are a few other kinds of common childhood sleep disturbances.
Night terrors, for example, are not the same as nightmares — these episodes happen early in the evening, during non-REM sleep, and are often triggered by stress, says Kramer. Your child will also respond differently to a night terror versus a nightmare.
“Those kids wake up crying uncontrollably, and they may move around or seem to be looking at you without really ‘seeing’ you,” he explains. “Then they’ll fall back to sleep with no recollection of what happened, and they won’t be able to vocalize [any particular dream or fear to you].”
Per the National Sleep Foundation, most kids grow naturally out of night terrors — but if your child is losing a lot of consecutive sleep, their overall health could be affected, and you might want to consult your child’s pediatrician.
Finally, be sure your child is having nightmares and not actually sleepwalking. According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, kids who sleepwalk may engage in purposeful behaviors like eating or dressing, and they may become confused or distressed with arousal (and they may even wet the bed).
Like night terrors, most kids outgrow sleepwalking on their own. In the meantime, Kramer recommends that any parents dealing with sleep disturbances make sure their kids are in a safe environment and can’t accidentally injure themselves during the night.