As any parent can attest, it’s not easy keeping kids calm when they wake up from a bad dream. It’s an experience many parents revisit again and again, as nightmares are a normal part of children’s development and fairly common. Along with consoling a child who awakens frightened, another big challenge is helping your child overcome fears of falling asleep, since that’s when the nightmares occur. These tactics can help you quell your child’s anxiety and encourage your little one to feel more comfortable going to sleep at night.
It’s often helpful to talk with your child about what he or she is feeling, both after a nightmare and also the next day. Immediately after a nightmare, you can help put your child’s mind at ease by offering comforting words and reiterating that everything is OK and everybody is safe. Although there is no need for excessive attention or pampering, you can sit together until your child falls back asleep. The next day, rather than making light of the situation, ask questions so the two of you can discuss any lingering anxieties or fears, which will help your child to relax.
Make Sleep More Fun
Since nightmares can cause children to become afraid of sleep—leading to a desire to avoid bedtime—it’s useful to create a positive association with sleep by making the bedtime routine enjoyable. Avoid watching scary movies or reading any mystery books at night, and instead come up with some ways to make bedtime more fun. For instance, you could read together with very low lights, or listen to an audiobook in the dark. You could also invent flashlight games or get your child a glow-in-the-dark toy. Many parents also find it helpful to ward off any nighttime fears by using “monster spray” to “protect” the room before lights out.
Help Them Relax
To make falling asleep at night easier, teach your child relaxation strategies. There are many to choose from; a good one to try involves having your child envision a soothing setting in nature, like tall grasses blowing in a breeze or a gentle waterfall. Imagining these relaxing scenes distracts your child from scary thoughts, which in turn allows for an easier time drifting off to sleep. Maintaining a regular bedtime routine is also important, since it helps kids know what to expect before sleep.
Create a Safe Environment
Feeling safe in bed is something most of us take for granted, but for kids who are having frequent nightmares, bed is a scary place. Let your child sleep with a security object, such as a stuffed animal, which can provide comfort. Use a nightlight to ease any fears of the dark, and create a feeling of connectivity by leaving the bedroom door open. Reassure your little one that you will come check things in a bit to make sure everyone is OK.
If your child continues to have nightmares multiple times a week, for several weeks in a row, it’s a good idea to talk with your pediatrician. A doctor might be able to pinpoint certain things in your child’s life that are raising anxiety levels, possibly contributing to scary nighttime experiences. For most kids, though, rest assured it’s a normal part of development and will pass.