Toddler nightmares and what to do about them?

Published : 22-02-2019 17:19:43
Categories : Child Sleep

Toddler nightmares and what to do about them?

It’s 4:30 AM and your toddler comes to your room, tears in his eyes, sobbing and stammering. The reason? A terrifying dream about monsters, witches and other nasty creatures present in toddler nightmares. It is impossible for your child to go back to sleep without feeling reassured by the presence of Mom or Dad. Here are our tips about nightmares and what to do to help your little one get rid of the bad dreams.

Toddler nightmares: characteristics

In general, the nightmare could be defined as any brutal awakening that is not a night terror. Before the age of 4, your child finds it difficult to correctly distinguish between dreams and reality. That's why they are so afraid of the terrifying images that can assail them at night. Although everyone has experienced this, it is important to go through some of the characteristics of nightmares in toddlers :

The nightmare is a bad dream that occurs occasionally during the paradoxical sleep phase (i.e. towards the end of the night).

The images of the nightmare are perfectly clear in the child’s mind and that is why they are so afraid of it. Your toddler is able, if he is old enough, to tell what terrifies him. In younger children, the fear can be conveyed by a gesture indicating the location of the "monster" to hunt.

Unlike night terrors, and even if your child seems completely distraught, there are very few physical manifestations (sweating, pulse rate). On the contrary, at the end of a nightmare, the senses are awakened and the child is fully aware of the surrounding environment. The toddler examines the room carefully and tries to get reassured. The fear comes from the images of the dream that remain in the child’s memory.

Your toddler wakes up when the emotion felt during the nightmare is too strong. He is fully awake when he begins to cry or scream, unlike the confused child, barely recognizing his parents after a night terror.

Since the images are so clear in his head, your toddler needs your reassurance. The child is afraid to go back to sleep and to find himself alone against his overflowing imagination. This can make bedtime difficult as the child will constantly get up and refuse to go back to bed.

A nightmare tends to stay in your toddler's mind for several days while he continues to digest the images of the bad dream. Their mood during the day could be affected by the terrifying memories of the nightmare.

Do not confuse night terrors with nightmares

It happens that at the end of the nightmare the toddler finds his parents restless and confused. Whether because of another reason or because the parents are worried to see their child in such state, the toddler has a hard time finding the reassurance that he needs. Not knowing what to hang on to, he may start crying even harder and refuse to be approached or touched. This situation can lead to confusion between night terrors and nightmares.

How to cope with nightmares?

It is important to understand that nightmares are normal and essential for the development of the child.In fact, they allow your little one to stabilize emotionally. Depending on their development, your child may go through phases with many nightmares and others filled with pleasant dreams. Thus the parents' reaction to the event should be adapted to the age of the child. Before the first two years of life, it's impossible to know what dreams and images appear in your toddler's brain. Only a few facial expressions, hand gestures and some other movements can indicate whether or not he is having a good time. It is only after 2 years old that your toddler is able to verbalize or mimic what has frightened him. Initially, the nightmares represent basic fears like losing Mom or Dad. Later, the fears expand to rather symbolic meanings with the arrival of monsters and other wacky creatures.

Of course, regardless of their age, the problem remains the same: your child needs reassurance. Completely awaken, he asks his father or mother to console him. Here are some tips to help your child regain composure according to his age :

Before 2 years old : Your toddler doesn’t make the difference between dreams and reality. There is no point in explaining to him that this is a nightmare! The images your child saw are real to him. Your toddler needs to feel your reassuring presence and your voice telling him that there is nothing to fear, that you are there to soothe and guide him back to sleep.

Between 2 and 4 years old : Your child gradually begins to understand that the images in his head do not necessarily correspond to reality. He is able to name what worried him. However, he does not yet have the necessary faculties to overcome his fears. Here again, simply reassuring him is the best solution. It's even better to avoid getting into the "game" of hunting the monster by pretending to put out the fire or checking that the monster is gone. In some children, this may even have the opposite effect and make the fear more credible! The only remedy: tenderness and a big hug!

After 4 years : This is it - at this age, your child is able to make the difference between dreams and reality. He can have a conversation about it more calmly and enjoy knowing that nightmares happen to everyone, even to you! To help him fight his fears alone, nothing beats a good book about terrifying monsters which ends well. You can also invent stories in which your child eventually turns into a superhero and comes to grips with this creature (not so frightening after all). Warning: if a nightmare is recurring, your child can not get over it or if the images are particularly violent, it is recommended to go see a psychologist. The nightmares represent real distress and can have consequences in your child’s daily life. Finding the reason and the origin causing those recurring nightmares is then imperative to help your child overcome his fears.

Petite fille a peur d'un cauchemars

Forgetting nightmares through play

The best way to get rid of your fears is to laugh about them. Whether you are a child or an adult, nothing beats a good laugh to overcome your fears!

Take for example a toddler. The little one often has nightmares since their mother's return to work because of the few of losing her. They find out that mom can't be there all the time and this is terribly scary. A game of hide and seek, in which mom disappears then reappears with a smile can help them get rid of this ugly dream! You can also have fun creating a funny photo frame! Ask your kid to choose their favorite photo of you. Decorate the frame together and place it in your child’s room. Before sleep, look at the frame and tell them that you are right next to them and that you are watching over them. In addition, a soft and warm atmosphere can help reassure a child when they wake up after having a nightmare. A night light can be a very useful purchase in those cases.

Here are some tips to help you fight nightmares:

Ask your kid to tell you about their nightmare: The first step, of course, is to ask calmly about the nightmare. Emphasise that this is just a dream and nothing real! If the nightmare repeats itself night after night, also try to identify, without improvising as a psychologist, events that could have triggered these anxieties. An argument with a friend during the day can quickly turn into a panicky fear of going back to school in a dream!

Give a happy ending to the nightmare: Remember that scene from Harry Potter where students facing their worst nightmares, have to cast the magic spell “Ridiculous” to turn their ugly critter into something funny and amusing? Take it back with your child and turn this ugly dragon into a little fire-breathing pup!

Create a nightmare-busting magic item: Take a picture of yourself that your child likes and ask them to decorate the frame. When it’s done, put it by their bed and tell them that Mom and Dad will always be there to watch over and that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Be careful not to confuse night terrors with nightmares

Finally, it is important to differentiate night terrors from nightmares. It is very easy to be confused! In the case of a nightmare, it is a frightening dream. Your child remembers it when they wake up, which often leads to crying. Finally, going back to sleep can be difficult. A night terror is partial and brutal. The child screams during the crisis but does not remember it once awake. The return to sleep is done each time without difficulty. During a night terror your little one does not need you to go back to sleep. During a night terror, the child is insensitive to their surroundings! They neither see you nor hear you. You need to be patient and wait for them to slowly fall back to sleep. This may take around 20 minutes.

It's important to remember that night terrors and nightmares are part of learning to sleep. As long as these episodes are not daily there is no reason to worry!

If you want to find more about night terrors here is our article: night terrors in babies : don't panic !

Share this content