Children's nightmares can be frightening for the whole family. They upset your little one, disrupt everyone's sleep and can cause anxiety the next time it's bedtime.
Paediatric sleep specialist Dr Chris Seton from the Woolcock Institute say it can be even harder with smaller children because they can't really communicate what they're dreaming. On the other hand, older kids that can communicate might have difficulty differentiating dream content from reality.
“Helping kids through nightmares is an important part of their development, in separating reality from dream content and imagination,” Chris says.
Here's his helpful tips for banishing bad dreams and those monsters under the bed.
1. Give lots of reassurance
“I think it’s especially hard [for kids] after a nightmare because they’re so vivid," Chris explains. "Even as an adult, you wake up from a nightmare and the first few seconds you’re awake it’s sometimes hard to separate out reality and dream content. For little kids who have nightmares, they’re often very, very distressed and not needing just simple reassurance, but ongoing reassurance.”
Tell kids that everyone has bad dreams and acknowledge they’re scary, but they’re not real.
2. Discuss nightmares during the day
“Talking about nightmares at other times, during the day, is important as well,” Chris says. Repeat your reassurance outside of the night time environment.
3. Be careful of screens and bedtime stories
Chris suggests being wary of scary stories or screen exposure in general, but especially in the hour before bed.
“We worry a little bit about the influence of what kids see before their sleep, particularly in relationship to screens and media exposure, which can have a big impact on dream content," he explains. "If you’re exposed to negative things before you go to sleep as a kid, the likelihood of a nightmare increases.”
Listen to Chris on Kinderling Conversation:
4. Suffering recurring nightmares? Be positive
Chris says recurrent nightmares are very common in kids and emphasises it's not necessarily a sign of any psychological issues. He says positivity before sleep can help avoid this.
“There’s a little bit of research showing that you can potentially shift that by changing content pre-sleep,” Chris says. “A book with a positive story just before bedtime can sometimes have a positive impact on recurrent nightmares. As in the negative content, the nightmare, gets replaced by the positive component to which the child is exposed to before bedtime.”
5. Have a calming bedtime routine
It’s very important to ensure that the pre-bedtime period is very positive and calming.
“We often underestimate the benefit of a positive pre-bedtime routine,” Chris notes. “We know that if you have a good prebedtime routine and a regular bedtime, the amount of dream sleep that you have actually increases, and that’s very nourishing in itself.”
The power of lullabies and why you should sing them
Why lullabies are good for your kids, and you too!
How to help an anxious child that’s scared of being alone
It's no surprise our little ones can have big worries.
How to put your toddler's night visits to rest
What to do with a late-night space invader.
Seven tips to tackle night-time toilet training
Nappy-less nights already giving you nightmares? Childcare expert Chris Minogue shares great advice to get past the big wet.
How to handle unwanted parenting advice without the eye rolls
A relationship counsellor's guide to dodging advice you didn't ask for.
Night terrors: how to treat them and beat them
A paediatric sleep specialist tells us how to tackle the terrors.
What to do when your partner isn’t pulling their weight
These tips should save you ripping out your hair (and theirs).
Understanding fevers: what to do when the temperature rises
How to treat the heat.