What are nightmares in children?

Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause children to wake up feeling scared and upset.

It’s normal for children to have nightmares about:

  • realistic dangers like aggressive dogs, sharks or spiders
  • imaginary fears like monsters
  • distressing events they’ve seen or experienced.

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, when your child is sleeping lightly and dreaming. Some younger children might find it hard to get back to sleep after a nightmare.

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 ideas to help you handle your child’s nightmares or 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 that he’s 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 children.
  • If your preschool-age child has dreamed about monsters, explain that monsters are only make-believe. You could say that make-believe things might be scary, but they can’t really hurt children.
  • Be patient if your child talks about a nightmare the next day. Listen to her worries – don’t dismiss or downplay them. Calmly talking together about the bad dream can reduce its emotional power. But if your child seems to have forgotten about a nightmare, it’s probably best not to raise the topic.
  • As your child gets older, encourage him to see a bad dream as something he can recover from himself, then go back to sleep on his own. You could use praise – for example, ‘You didn’t need me for long after your bad dream last night. You were able to settle yourself really well’.

Try these ideas if your child has a lot of nightmares, or is dreaming about the same thing over and over again:

  • Gently ask your child about interactions with other children, television shows, computer games or other daytime experiences. Then you can help her avoid experiences that might be triggering the nightmares. For example, if your child has been watching Doctor Who and having nightmares about aliens, it might be a good idea for her not to watch it for a while.
  • Help your child change a recurring dream. For example, if the dream often involves a scary alien, suggest that your child has a magic wand in the dream to make the alien disappear. Encourage your child to come up with ideas on how to be a hero in the bad dream. He can go over these ideas in his mind during the day.
  • Make sure your child is regularly getting enough sleep.
  • If your child is prone to anxiety or stress, think about how you can help your child relax before bedtime.

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.