Just like adults, children sometimes work out confusing feelings or difficult experiences through their dreams. Even though hearing a sudden scream in the middle of the night coming from your little one’s bedroom is distressing– nightmares are quite common.
It’s important to note that all children have nightmares, regardless of their environment. Most parents will be concerned about a particular trauma their kid might have experienced, but nightmares can emerge with just telling a scary story (that may not seem frightening to you), going to the mall and your little one seeing a poster of an animal that he finds frightening, or finding a scary item. Later in the night, these scary stories or objects might find their way into your child’s dreams. This happens because children at this age have a hard time separating fantasy from reality, which can lead to fears and, thus, be vented through dreams.
What can you do to deal with your child’s nightmares?
While it is true that every child has an occasional scary or distressing dream, nightmares seem to be more frequent during the preschool years when fear of the dark is common. Another thing that is important about nightmares is that they happen closer to the morning, in the late stages of REM sleep. This is an important characteristic as it differs from night terrors, which happen during the first few hours of sleep when your child is sleeping deeply.
After a nightmare, it may be hard to settle your little one back in bed, but it’s important you do it since he needs those few hours of sleep. Go to your child when he cries out and provide physical reassurance -you can start by hugging him and rubbing his back until he calms down. You should also reassure him that everything is okay by explaining that the dream was just like a movie playing in his head and when he wakes up “the movie turns off”. You can also ask him about the dream. Even though your child won’t be able to explain it in detail -since he is just developing his linguistic skills– talking about it can help him process the event. Don’t forget to really listen to your child’s worries –don’t dismiss them! Another thing you can try is showing your little one there are no monsters under the bed or in the closet (if that is his fear), or you can even come up with a “happy ending” for the dream the next day.
What can you do to prevent nightmares?
Many might wonder if there is anything they can do to avoid nightmares and provide their children with a peaceful night’s sleep, and the good news is that you can!
Here are 5 tips you can try at home:
- Have a regular bedtime and wake-up time.
- Stick to a soothing bedtime routine, where your son can feel safe and secure. For example, a warm bath, snuggle with you, reading or talking about pleasant events of the day.
- Have a cozy bed and peaceful place to quiet down.
- Avoid potentially scary movies, TV shows or stories –or things that have triggered nightmares before.
- Explore sources of stress in your child’s day and take measures to reduce or stop his exposure to those experiences.
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