Nightmares can be a terrifying experience for your toddlers, unlike night terrors, your children can remember their scary dreams. Reassurance and comfort are exactly what your child needs afterwards, but you might be wondering what you should and shouldn’t do. We’ve got you covered so that you can do the best post-nightmare care for your little ones.
What causes nightmares?
Firstly, we should talk about what usually causes nightmares. There are a number of reasons, one could be your child watched or read something that frightened them. A vivid imagination, anxiety over growing up or something going on in their life, experiencing a traumatic event can be some other common causes and can help you understand how to help your toddler.
Make sure your child’s bedroom is close to yours, and if it’s not, then you could put a baby monitor in there if you don’t already have one. You want your child to feel safe immediately after experiencing a nightmare if you’re not close or able to come to them they’ll get even more frightened and worked up. When you’re with your child, comfort them and let them know nothing bad is going to happen. This reassurance can calm them down and get them ready to go back to sleep. Be prepared, you will have to wait until your child is ready to go back to sleep before you leave them.
After a nightmare has occurred, your toddler might want to tell you all about it, this is the perfect opportunity for you to encourage them to change the ending into something funny or happy. Try and come up with scenarios together, for example, if they had a nightmare about a dog chasing them, try and help them imagine that the dog was actually a puppy, and it kept tripping over. These fun/silly little endings can make your child no longer fear what was in their nightmare.
Before bed, ensure your toddler hasn’t watched anything with violence, scary scenes or anything that they’re afraid of (e.g. spiders). Have a proper bedtime routine where your child can relax and get ready to sleep. Read them a book they enjoy, reminisce on the happy moments of the day or even just rock them a bit to get them to sleep. If your child is having recurring nightmares, this can be due to trauma, consult with your paediatrician who can refer you to a child psychologist. Your child may need to talk to a neutral party to overcome their anxieties caused by that trauma.
Nightmares can also be caused by poor sleep habits or overtiredness, so make sure your child is getting to bed at a reasonable hour and that they are meeting their daily sleep needs. If you haven’t already now is a good time to start a nightly sleep ritual with them that will help them know it is bedtime and will help them fall asleep easier.
What not to do…
There are a few things you shouldn’t do when your toddler has a nightmare.
- Don’t let them deal with it on their own. We understand you’re sleepy too, but your toddler is experiencing an extreme sense of distress, if you ignore them, they can get even more overwhelmed and worked up or feel abandoned.
- Don’t blame them. Your child’s nightmare is real and is not for attention. If your child is scared or worried about something, they need reassurance, not anger from you.
- Don’t feed into their fear. If your child is afraid of a toy in their room or an ornament around the house, don’t hide them. Talk to your child with the object they’re afraid of and show them it’s harmless and there’s no need to worry.
- Don’t let them crawl into bed with you. We know it’s the easiest option, but if your tactic to reassure them is to have them sleep next to you, they’ll start to fear sleeping alone or believe sleeping alone is the cause of their nightmares. Wait until they’ve fallen asleep in their own bed, and then go back to your bed.
We know it can be a scary experience for you too, but by implementing a few of these tactics, your child will feel comfortable, and their nightmares will lessen. Always consult a doctor if you’re worried about the frequency of their nightmares or what they’re dreaming about. You’re doing a great job, don’t lose faith!