By Raising Children Network
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Crying boy being cuddled credit van der Westhuizen

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By five years, 50% of children will have woken up after a nightmare.

Nightmares in children are common and mostly normal. When your child wakes from nightmares or bad dreams, she needs comfort and reassurance.

What are nightmares in children?

Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause children to wake in fear and distress.

It’s normal for children to have nightmares about:

  • realistic dangers like aggressive dogs, sharks or spiders
  • imaginary fears like monsters.

Depending on their language ability, children can sometimes tell you about their bad dreams in detail.

Nightmares tend to happen in the second half of the night, during phases of REM or dream sleep.

Some younger children might find it hard to get back to sleep after a nightmare. By seven years, your child might be able to deal with nightmares and go back to sleep without calling you for comfort.

Tips for dealing with nightmares and bad dreams

Children often wake tearful and upset after a nightmare. They need comfort from you. As children get older, they’ll get better at understanding that a dream is just a dream.

Here are more ideas to help you handle your child’s nightmares and bad dreams:

  • If your child wakes up because of or during a nightmare, explain that it was a bad dream. Reassure him that everything is OK and safe. A kiss and a cuddle might help your child settle again.
  • Let your child know it’s OK to feel scared after a nightmare. Avoid dismissing the fear or saying that your child is being silly, because nightmares can seem very real to little children.
  • If your preschool-age child has dreamed about monsters, you could try explaining that monsters are only make-believe. Explain that make-believe things might be scary, but they can’t really hurt children.
  • If your child talks about a nightmare the next day, be patient. Listen to her worries – don’t dismiss or downplay them. But if she seems to have forgotten all about a nightmare, it’s probably best not to raise the topic.
  • If your child is dreaming about similar things over and over again, gently ask him about interactions with other children, television shows or other daytime experiences. For example, if your child has been watching Dr Who and having nightmares about daleks, it might be a good idea for him not to watch it for a while.

Getting help

It can be a good idea to seek professional advice if your child is having nightmares and is also having a lot of anxiety during the day.

Also seek help if your child has nightmares after going through a traumatic event – for example, a natural disaster like a bushfire, a car accident, a school lockdown and so on.

What causes nightmares?

Occasional nightmares are normal. If your child has nightmares every now and then, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her emotionally. You don’t need to worry.

Children with vivid imaginations might have nightmares more often than other children. Again, you don’t need to worry.

But if your child is having a recurrent nightmare, or he’s having particularly bad dreams, he might be experiencing some kind of stress during the day.

Traumatic events can also cause nightmares. If a child has experienced some type of traumatic event, she might have nightmares about it for several weeks or months afterwards.

  • Last updated or reviewed 19-07-2016