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Everyone has nightmares. But while adults eventually wake up relieved that it was "just a dream", young children don't yet have the capacity to distinguish dreams from reality.
It’s perfectly normal for children to have the occasional nightmare, according to Dr. Herbert Mandell, medical director for the 125-year-old national children's crisis charity KidsPeace. "Nightmares and scary dreams are common in childhood, and are more likely to occur at points of significant developmental change, for example becoming a toddler with more freedom to roam, moving into pre- or early adolescence, or with family stress like the birth of a sibling or moving to a new home.”
If your child is experiencing nightmares, don’t fret. There are plenty of things you can do to help ease your child’s mind and send her back into a peaceful, and hopefully uneventful, night’s sleep. Here are a few tips from Stacy DeBroff, author of The Mom Book: 4,278 Tips for Moms!:
- If your child wakes from a nightmare, talk briefly about it with him to help him feel reassured.
- Help your child "rewrite" a happy ending, in which she vanquishes whatever scary thing she faced in the dream.
- Hang a dream catcher in the room, and explain how it will help catch any nightmares or bad dreams.
- Allow her to come to terms with her fear slowly, rather than confronting it head-on.
- Don’t trivialize your child's fears. Acknowledge them and explain some of your own childhood fears and how you got past them. This will normalize your child’s fears and help him feel more in control of his emotions and hopeful about conquering fears.
- Tuck her sheets around her snugly.
- Draw pictures of things your child loves, or cut them from magazines, and fill a box with them. Have him select a picture from the box to think about while falling asleep.
- Invest in a nightlight. While some parents worry these lights will cause vision problems, research shows that this is not the case. Waking up to a reassuring glow gives kids a sense of place and security. Our favorite? The Cloud B Twilight Turtle, which projects constellations onto the bedroom ceiling.
Children have nightmares for a plethora of reasons. Dig a little deeper to find out what’s behind your child’s bad dreams and you’ll have better luck squelching them. If you can conquer monsters and nighttime fears, you’re well on your way to avoiding future scares. Here are a few more tips for keeping the boogey man at bay:
- Read stories, or make up your own, about children bravely or humorously conquering their fear of the dark, shadows, monsters, or whatever else about which your child expresses concern.
- Fill a spray bottle with water and label it “monster spray”. Spritz the room before bed.
- Help children make a sign for the door: “No monsters allowed!”
- Buy new pajamas or a pillowcase that you declare monster-proof.
- Make a ritual of shouting, sweeping, or throwing out any lurking monsters before bed. Close doors to scary closets. Go on a monster hunt to reassure your child that the coast is clear.
- Make her protector of her toys. Have her reassure a favorite stuffed animal, and then reassure her that her stuffed animals will watch over her.
- Give him a flashlight to keep next to his bed, to use if he wakes up afraid in the middle of the night.
- Take a walk together at bedtime, or lie on a blanket under the stars to make warm, comforting associations with nighttime and the dark.
- Eliminate violent or frightening books, movies, and cartoons.
- If she becomes afraid of shadows in her room at night, use daytime to teach her about shadows, make shadow puppets, and play tag with her own shadow.
Hopefully, with a combination of the above, your child will be dreaming of fairies, not trolls. However, Dr. Mandell says, “If the nightmares are persistent, especially if accompanied by somatic (bodily) complaints and/or school issues, it may be time to seek professional consultation."
One of the best things you can do for your child’s mind and body is to ensure he or she gets a good night’s sleep. Eliminating fitful sleep and scary dreams is a step in the right direction. So cast out the monsters and kiss your child goodnight. Remember, if he's getting some solid shuteye, chances are you will too.
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