How to Handle… Nightmares
Three takes on how to offer your little one comfort when dreams aren't so sweet
Most adults can remember having nightmares when we were small, and would spare our kids their own scary dreams if we could. Unfortunately, we don’t get veto power when it comes to our little ones’ dreamscapes, but there are some ways we can help. We asked two parenting experts, and one folk-singing mama, for advice on how to steer children’s slumber in a sweeter-dreams direction.
Kim West, LCSW-C, author of The Sleep Lady’s Good Night Sleep Tight and co-founder of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC)
“You can help to minimize the nightmares your child experiences by avoiding scary videos and books prior to bedtime, scary games, high-dose vitamins at bedtime, and by checking with your pediatrician to make sure your child isn’t taking any medications that might interfere with night-time sleep. Sleep deprivation can also increase nightmares, so stick to a regular sleep schedule and make sure your child is getting enough shut-eye.
When he does have a nightmare, respond quickly and assure him of his safety; keeping a calm presence of mind, and using a soothing voice, can make a huge difference for your child. Listen attentively if he tells you about his dream, and—as always—show compassion, love and respect for his experiences.”
Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep
“If your child has fears at bedtime or is afraid of the dark, find ways to make the dark more fun and familiar. Play flashlight tag, read your last bedtime book by flashlight, or put glow-in-the-dark stars on your child’s bedroom ceiling. For nightmares, you obviously want to reassure your child and help her understand that nightmares are not real. Avoid bringing her to your bed, however, as you don’t want her to associate your bed with comfort and her bed with being scared. Instead, stay with your child in her room until she feels calm again, letting her know that there is nothing to be afraid of.
If your child has frequent nightmares, try having her draw her nightmare and then crumpling up the picture and throwing it away. During the night, you can also have her flip her pillow over, telling her that it’s like changing the channel on the TV. Hanging a dreamcatcher together, and talking about how it’ll catch the bad dreams but let pleasant ones through, can also be helpful.”
Cathy Guthrie, mother of one and singer/musician in the band Folk Uke
“Nightmares can seem very real to a kid. They seem real to me too! [My daughter] Marjorie sometimes wakes up crying. I hold her closely and reassure her, ‘It’s just a dream, and it’s not real. I’m right here…’ And once she’s calmed down, I ask if she wants to tell me about the dream.
If she can remember the dream, and can describe it to some extent, I try to look for reasons she might be having the nightmares she has. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell, and reminding her that the dream isn’t real is sufficient. Other times, I can pinpoint certain fears she’s grappling with, and I’ll address those fears—in separate, reassuring conversations, and without bringing up her nightmares, specifically—during the day, when we’re awake. Before she was able to tell me what her dreams were about, I would simply focus on reminding her of how safe and cozy her room was, as she fell asleep, and comfort her if she had a nightmare. I had occasionally had nightmares when I was a child—I think most children do. It isn’t fun to witness our kids experiencing fear, but I remind myself that it’s a normal part of growing up, and I remind Marjorie that I am always here when she needs me. That helps both of us!”
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