While it’s unknown what age children begin to dream, it is known that “67 percent of four- to six-year-olds… 96 percent of seven- to nine-year-olds and 76 percent of ten- to twelve-year-olds [reported having scary dreams sometimes or often],” according to PBS. Parents can be comforted to know that the occurrences of nightmares and fears of the unknown are nothing uncommon. But what might not be comforting is feeling helpless when your own child is haunted by terrifying nightmares night after night.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to both prevent a nightmare before it begins as well as after your child has already awoken from a bad dream.
First step’s first. To prevent a nightmare, be sure to:
Establish a sleep routine.
Having a regular bedtime and routine provides kids with the security of predictability and knowing what to expect. So create nightly habits with your young one: give a soothing bath, read a pleasant story together, say prayers or recite a favorite poem to each other, or even snuggle and talk about his or her favorite part of the day. One routine you’ll want to be sure and avoid: screen time right before bed. Not only does this activity have the potential to spark nightmares, it also has the capability of disrupting your child from drifting off in a reasonable amount of time. Watching a video on the TV, tablet or phone can keep their active imagination wired, while the bright and artificial light sends a message to their brains that it’s still day time instead of bedtime.
Create a cozy space.
A relaxing environment can make it easier for your child to self-sooth to sleep. Pick plush, soft bedding that could keep any child warm. Be sure a favorite security blanket or stuffed animal is tucked in tightly with your child. If monsters under the bed or other unseen creatures are giving your child nightmares, pick out a nightlight that isn't too bright and keeps them up; if the wind outside a window or creaks in old pipes creates fears of invisible forces, a gentle noise maker or even portable fan can mask any unknown sound. And don’t be afraid to rule out unexplained powers, like a gemstone, dream catcher or even “monster spray” that can emit a positive influence for your little one to rely on for security.
Address fears and anxieties.
Dreams are often a compilation of events that occurr during the day as the brain’s way of processing information, and so nightmares are (obviously) a result of fears and anxieties. During the security of sunlight, chat with your child about his or her day. A minor event that may have not given him or her anxiety at the time may seep through their dreams, so try to identify and address the scenario before it becomes a fear (without causing more worry than comfort). Talking to your child about stresses can not only help with nightmares, but also provide opportunities to learn coping skills and understand that these emotions are a natural process of growing up.
Unfortunately, all the prep in the world can’t stop a nightmare from occurring. Luckily, after a bad dream, you can still:
Comfort your child.
Reassure your child that the worst part is over with soothing hugs and empowering messages. Let her know that no matter how frightening her dream may be, she’ll always be safe in her bed and with you just in the other room. Put her fears to rest, especially if the dreams involved loved ones being hurt or missing.
Teach about dreams.
Take the opportunity to introduce some simple psychology principles to help your child overcome the seemingly powerful influence of his dreams. Explain to him that dreams are just the body’s way of sorting through the previous day, and reassure that thoughts do not have the power to physically hurt. One practice you can use to help cement this idea is to have your child close his eyes and imagine with all his power that his thumbs are green. Then when he opens his eyes and sees his non-green thumbs, he’ll have tangible proof that his thoughts could not physically change the color.
Practice relaxing techniques.
A skill that many young and old could use is learning how to calm the senses after feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Have your child take long, deep breaths and count to 10 with you, or close his or her eyes and imagine a place or memory that brings comfort. Practicing ways to relax will not only sooth fears after a nerve-wrecking nightmare, but will help your young one manage the stresses of daily life.
Rewrite the story.
It’s no secret that kids’ imaginations are vivid at a young age, and sometimes deciphering between their imagination and reality can be a blurry line. So teach them that they have the capability of rewriting their own story. The empowering message will not only reassure them that the dream wasn’t real, but that they have a power over their own fears and anxieties. This could be an effective tool for when they’re older and faced with seemingly uncontrollable circumstances.
You can learn more ways to get your kids to bed in our blog “7 Tips and Tricks for Getting Kids to Sleep at Night.” But if you’re worried that your child’s nightmares are more than just a bad dream, you can read our blog “Night Terrors Vs Nightmares: How to Deal with Your Terrified Child” and learn what further steps to take.
Sleep apnea could be another factor in re-occurring nightmares, as the shallow breathing and obstruction often happens before slipping into REM sleep and can cause the sleeper to wake suddenly with anxiety of being “choked.” You can take our quick quiz to help determine if your child may have sleep apnea.
Obstruction or not, our experts here at Alaska Sleep Clinic are trained professionals who can help with any sleep dilemma, from OSA to insomnia and even night terrors. If you live in the Anchorage, Alaska area, be sure to call for a quick 10-minute free consultation, or schedule a sleep study and get to the bottom of your child’s sleep problems today.