Children usually begin experiencing nightmares about the age of 18 months, and the nightmares start to occur more often and more intensely throughout the preschool years. Preschool nightmares usually involve feelings of helplessness and danger, and often involve escaping from monsters or animals. Around the age of five, nightmares generally begin to lessen in intensity and frequency, although they may increase just prior to starting kindergarten because of the worries that can accompany starting a new school.
Nightmares, in both children and adults, often arise during times of stress and uncertainty. Preschool children may be more prone to experiencing nightmares than are older or younger children because they are going though a period of major adjustments. They are learning how to deal with a lot of unfamiliar situations and more unpredictable environments. Preschoolers spend increasing amounts of time away from home and their primary caregivers, while simultaneously having to learn how to hone their social skills within a classroom full of children from various backgrounds. When adults have to deal with this many changes all at once, we, too, often show the stress through disturbances in sleep.
Nightmares can be scary, even for adults. We wake up sweating, with pounding hearts and a rush of adrenaline. We are startled and disoriented until we tell ourselves, “It’s okay, it was just a dream. It’s not real.” Preschool children do not have the experience or the brain development to calm themselves down after a nightmare, nor do they have a complex understanding of what is real and not real. These factors, in combination with the vivid imaginations of preschool children, can lead to a very scary nighttime experience. Therefore a parent's job is to model calming behavior and self-soothing statements so that eventually children learn that they too can calm themselves down.
Here are some ideas for helping preschool children who have had a nightmare:
- Turn on the lights so that the child is comforted by the familiarity of his own room and can leave the setting of the nightmare behind. Hold your child for a few minutes and reassure him that he is okay. Tell him that you know that he feels very scared, but it is your job to keep him safe. Explain that things that happen in dreams are not real and cannot hurt him.
- If your child is afraid to stay in her room or has a lot of trouble calming down, it might be wise to take her to another part of the house for a few minutes, such as the living room sofa, before you return her to her bed. Beware of taking children back to your room or letting them sleep in your bed after a nightmare, as it could become a habit that will be very hard to break.
- Do not spend a lot of time talking about the dream at the time. Just focus on soothing your child. In the morning, suggest talking about the dream or drawing pictures of it, as these tasks will give your child some sense of control over the images in the dream.
- There are many things you can do during the day to lessen the chances of nightmares occurring. Make sure to keep your child's life as stress-free and routine-based as possible. Cut down or eliminate television or movies that contain scary images, especially in the hours before bedtime. Have a bedtime ritual that calms your child and makes him feel safe and loved.
- You can also have a calming ritual that you do after a nightmare occurs, such as plugging in a special nightlight, petting a stuffed animal (or a pet), or singing a particular song. Just make sure it ends with you saying something like, “I know you’re okay now. I love you. Good night,” and leaving the room.
- If some type of stress is happening in your child’s life, give him lots of opportunities to talk about it during the day. Doing so will give you many chances to reassure him that no matter what is happening in his life, you will be there is protect him and keep him safe.
- Preschool children are also particularly prone to a type of sleep disturbance called night terrors. Night terrors can be scarier for parents than for children, since children are only partially awake and usually do not remember having the episode by the next morning. The child may have his eyes open in a blank stare, but will be screaming and thrashing around. If you see your child having a night terror, just make sure the child is safe and will not harm himself, and then step back until the episode has run its course. After a few minutes, the child should fall back asleep.
Relatively infrequent nightmares (1-2 per week) in preschool children should not be a major cause for concern. As long as you handle nightmares in a way that gives your child a few minutes of calm, soothing attention, and acknowledges his fears before firmly sending him back to bed, the nightmares should not have a major impact on your life or that of your child. On the other hand, if you have tried some of above tips, and the nightmares are continuing on a regular basis, getting more intense, or having a major impact on your child’s daily life, make sure to seek help from a pediatrician or mental health professional.