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Encouraging a sweet sleep after a nightmare 

Written by Genie Price 

We all dream, we also have nightmares, unfortunately, some are more vivid than others. Even your toddler may tell you of their magical tales or speak about having dreams — both pleasant ones and scary ones.  

Sadly, nightmares aren’t completely preventable, so when they do creep in, with a little comfort from you, thoughts of nastiness can quickly be erased.   

A bit about nightmares: 

Dreams and nightmares happen to everyone and they happen for a variety of reasons.  

  • They can occur as a result of trauma and anxiety, or from fears.  
  • Most bad dreams are not cause for concern, however, some can be the result of underlying sleep disorders 
  • A nightmare is a picture the brain has processed – which so happens to eventuate during the longest period of sleep, the rapid eye movement or REM sleep period.  

During the early childhood years, your child will experience the occasional frightening or unsettling dream, with figures indicating that 20-30% of children between the ages of 3 and 12 have frequent nightmares. The peak of which occur during the preschool years more so than other ages, when fear of the dark is common, also. 

While adults may not always pay attention to the imagery of their dreams, children often do, which can result in associated emotions such as sadness and fear carrying over into the waking world.  

By understanding how to recognise a nightmare, you can know how to respond.  

Recognise a nightmare:  

  • Your child will usually wake and call to you or someone important  
  • They may appear frightened or distressed 
  • They will be awake, alert and responsive when you go to them 
  • Unfortunately, being awake means your child will most likely recall the part of or all of their dream and may want to talk to you about it – possibly for several days afterwards 
  • Your child will look to you for reassurance that it was only a dream – remind them 
  • They may have difficulty getting back to sleep 

Encouraging Sweet Dreams: 

While as parents you can’t prevent nor predict the occurrence of a nightmare, you can help your child get a restful sleep – one which encourages sweet dreams. 

To help your child relax after a bad dream, be sure that you: 

  • encourage a regular bedtime and wake-up time 
  • have a sleep routine that helps them wind down, and feel safe and secure as they drift off to sleep. This might include a bath, a quiet book or a cuddle with you or a talk about the pleasant events of the day 
  • have a bed that’s a comfortable, peaceful place to be.  Having a favourite toy or stuffed animal can help some children 
  • avoid scary movies, TV shows, and stories before bed — especially if they’ve triggered nightmares before 
  • Remind your child again that nightmares aren’t real, that they’re just a “picture” the brain makes and that dreams can’t hurt them 

Here’s how you can help after the event of a nightmare: 

Reassure your child: Your child will call for you as they will be evidently distressed after a nightmare. Your presence alone is enough to make your child feel safe and protected after waking up feeling afraid. Knowing you’ll be there helps strengthen your child’s sense of security. 

Label it: Let your child know that what they just experienced was a nightmare, but that it’s now over. Reassure your child that the scary stuff they saw in the nightmare didn’t happen in the real world. You might say something like, “You had a bad dream, but now you’re awake and everything is OK.” 

Do your magic: Both pre-schoolers and young children have vivid imaginations. Do not underestimate the magical powers you hold as a parent combined with your storytelling abilities – because they can work wonders. By gently redirecting the train of thought, you will be able to make monsters disappear with a dose of monster spray, or remind them of a special memory or event to ease their mind.  

You can further encourage those sweet dreams by offering them something more to help them go back to sleep.   

Try any of the following for a peaceful transition back into la-la land: 

  • Warm milk  
  • A night light  
  • Quiet music 
  • A dreamcatcher 

And, whatever you choose to do, seal it with a kiss!!  

No one knows exactly what causes nightmares, however, by the time your child is preschool age, they will have started to understand that a nightmare is only a bad dream and that what’s happening isn’t real and can’t hurt them. But knowing that doesn’t prevent them from feeling scared.  

With a little love and understanding, it shouldn’t be too difficult to ease your little one back into a sleep that they will wake up feeling refreshed from. 

NB: While dreams and nightmares, for most children, only happen now and then, if you have concerns that they are ongoing and beginning to affect your childs emotional or behavioural development, please speak to a doctor. 




Citation: LC Terr - Sleep and Its Disturbances in Children, 1987 – Raven Press, New York 



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