Do you remember having nightmares as a child? If so, you might recall how real they felt to you, how hard it was to fall back asleep after a particularly scary dream, and how wonderfully comforting snuggles from mom or dad were during those late nights.
As a parent, it can be startling to hear your preschooler cry out at night, unsure of what the reason might be. If you’ve established that they are safe, not sick or in pain, or just calling out for extra late-night snuggles, the culprit might be a nightmare or night terror.
Bumps In The Night
When it comes to nightmares and night terrors, there is a difference. The more common form, nightmares, are usually experienced by children 3-5 years old. Another way to think about nightmares is simply bad dreams. During a nightmare, your child wakes up scared and upset, but will usually settle once you’ve comforted them.
Nightmares commonly appear toward the morning and can sometimes reflect stressful events from earlier in the day. If your child is having frequent nightmares, it might be a good idea to track the frequency and content of the dream. Sometimes nightmares can hint at possible stressors or emotional upset in your preschooler’s life.
Although much less common, Night terrors are unfortunately more severe. Night terrors most often happen in the first couple hours of falling asleep when they are in a deep sleep.
- Many parents are taken aback if this happens to their child. During a night terror episode, your child will seem awake and in distress. It can be startling to parents because the child can thrash around, push you away, and be unresponsive to your questions. The crying is also different. It’s louder and more panic stricken.
- During a night terror, the child is not dreaming, but is actually still asleep—only they may sit up in bed and have their eyes wide open. They don’t know what’s going on around them, and usually do not respond well to comforting. Children generally don’t remember these episodes in the morning.
Nightmares and night terrors are hard on both kiddos and parents, but there are steps you can take to help reduce the amount of bad dreams they experience.
Children thrive on feeling safe. When it comes to bedtime, creating a safe, calm, and comforting space can help lull them back to sleep:
- Use a nightlight or hallway light
- Play soft music
- Give your child a special blanket or stuffed animal to sleep with
- Keep family pictures nearby on their wall
In addition to a sense of security, young children also do best with routines. Sticking to a bedtime routine allows your child to anticipate what’s coming next, which can help reduce anxiety around bedtime. Below is a sample bedtime routine:
- Put toys away
- Brush teeth
- Read a story
- Sing a bedtime song like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” together
- Kiss or hug, then say goodnight
It’s also a good idea to turn off all screens (TV, tablets, video games) and choose calming play activities an hour or two before bedtime to help your child wind down. Some ideas include:
- Play Dough
How to Help
Managing nightmares and night terrors take different approaches.
Following a nightmare, tell your child that they are safe and comfort them with hugs or back rubs (whatever they are comfortable with at the moment). Some reassuring phrases to use are:
- “Your dream wasn’t real.”
- “You are here safe with me.”
- “I will protect and take care of you.”
Some parents avoid talking too much about the characters of their child’s dream. For example, if the nightmare involved a monster, saying that the monster has left the room can lead the child to think the monster will come back because to him the monster is very real.
Some other tips to consider:
- If your child wants to talk about their dream, let them. But listen and respond calmly.
- Use deep breaths or other relaxation techniques.
- Leave a nightlight on so your child can see where they are when they wake up from a nightmare.
A parent’s first instinct when faced with a night terror is usually to swoop in and comfort their child with hugs and reassuring words. Remember that during these moments, children are still asleep and unaware of what’s going on around them. Fussing with them too much can sometimes make the situation worse. It’s better to let the night terror pass, and just stay close to your child and comfort them if they ask for it. Night terrors can last anywhere from a couple minutes to 20 minutes.
When a night terror comes on, it’s easy for parents to get overwhelmed. Just remember:
- Stay calm.
- Identify whether it’s a nightmare or night terror.
- If it’s a night terror, don’t try to wake your child.
- Stay close and offer comfort as they transition out of the night terror.
- Children will generally settle without waking after night terrors.
Unless your child says something, it’s usually best not to talk about the nightmares or night terrors the next morning. Dwelling on it can sometimes cause more anxiety about going to sleep. Creating a calming bedtime routine and sleep space can help put the whole family in a good space to lull off to dreamland.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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