While adults can experience nightmares, they are far more frequent in children between the ages of three and six. Science isn’t exactly sure what makes a dream turn into a nightmare, but the important thing for parents to understand, according to Noah Siegel, a board-certified sleep medicine doctor at Harvard, is that a nightmare at that age is far scarier than what we experience as adults. That’s because kids can’t fully distinguish between reality and their bad dream.
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A child who wakes terrified from a nightmare should be comforted. Most medical establishments, including The Mayo Clinic, recommend that parents stay with the child for a brief period following the nightmare, and continually reassure him that he is safe. Empathize with your child that you understand it seems really scary, but that it’s not real. Leaving his bedroom door open, and using a nightlight can both be helpful techniques when nightmares start.
Siegel says that the most common nightmares for kids often involve scary animals, scary people, and being in the dark. The theme of a child’s nightmares can also be tied to their development stage. Young children, for example, may have nightmares about being separated from their parents, or getting lost. As they get older, kids start to wrestle with concepts like dying.
While more research needs to be done on the topic, Siegel says some child psychologists see a connection between an increase in frequency of nightmares and stress. If your kid is starting to have frequent nightmares, or is starting to become afraid to go to sleep for fear of having a bad dream, talk with her in the safety of daytime. Try and figure out what may be bothering her, and then work with her to reduce those stressors.
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Parents can also take a proactive approach to nightmares by enabling healthy sleep habits. “Many experts believe that nightmares are more common in a sleep-deprived child than one on a regular sleep and wake schedule,” says Siegel. And this one sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning that a child’s bedtime routine should be lighthearted. Avoid exposing kids to scary music, television programs, movies, and books in the 30 to 60 minutes before bed.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, repetitive nightmares that increase in frequency and intensity, and are highly disruptive, can be a sign of a deeper cognitive issue like an anxiety disorder, particularly if other psychological issues or traumas are already involved. This is the instance where you’ll want to contact your pediatrician. Otherwise, neither doctors nor parents worry too much about nightmares in children. It’s a phase that they will outgrow, typically by adolescence.