5 expert tips for dealing with kids' nightmares and bedtime anxiety

Kinderling News & Features

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 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 pre-bedtime routine and a regular bedtime, the amount of dream sleep that you have actually increases, and that’s very nourishing in itself.”