Toddler nightmares can be a heartrending experience for parents, especially when you witness your toddler wake up crying after a series of bad dreams.
Rest assured, nightmares are actually common in children, especially if she’s just entering her second year of age. It’s also a part of their development, as they started to understand more the feeling of fear and develop their imagination, which is the root of most nightmares.
But what if the nightmare doesn’t stop and it just happens almost every night? Plus, your child always has a hard time going back to sleep after every nightmare. Here is everything you need to know about the toddler nightmare, and what you can do to help and prevent it in the long run.
What Are Toddler Nightmares? Is It Similar To Night Terror?
Simply put, toddler nightmares are scary or frightening dream that causes them to wake up at night. They may also feel anxious and shocked, and experience sweating, rapid breathing and an increased heart rate when they wake up from a nightmare. They may have trouble going back to sleep, and it’s also quite often for toddlers to remember the details of their scary dream.
However, toddler nightmares are actually not the same as night terrors. While night terrors may also be caused by a bad dream, your child doesn’t wake up from a night terror, even though they may scream, rapidly breathe or talk in their sleep. And unlike a nightmare, they also won’t remember anything that happened.
What Causes Nightmare in Children?
There are plenty of factors that cause nightmares. It can be a change in her sleeping environment, recently having scary experiences such as watching a scary movie, illness, overtired, taking certain medicines, or even something as simple as needing to pee when she’s asleep.
Toddler nightmares can also be a normal part of their development. Nightmares usually start when your children are 2 years old, because at that age, they are now more capable and aware of their surroundings and have developed better intelligence and memory. They now can feel fear, and it’s normal for them to remember scary things that they previously saw in movies or stories. Plus, children also still cannot differentiate between what’s real or make-believe.
What To Do When Your Child is Having a Nightmare?
It’s normal for your child to be scared, anxious, and have a hard time getting back to sleep after an episode of a nightmare. However, your child still needs some more sleep so that they don’t feel tired the next day.
Parents’ presence is important when a toddler experiences a nightmare. Try to calm your child and reassure them that everything is okay and that now you’re on her side, and help her to get back to sleep again.
If your child has started talking, you can ask them to talk about her nightmare and explain that it was just a bad dream and it’s okay to be scared of a nightmare. Describing her experience can help them understand that the nightmare was not real.
Another consoling idea is to carry your child in your hand and let her sleep in your arms before putting her in her own bed again. But if your child already sleeps in her own room, avoid bringing her back to your room as it can create a new habit and disturb her transition process.
What prevent nightmares
The phrase “prevention is better than cure” also applies to toddlers’ nightmares, especially if the episodes have increased frequently. Here are things you can do to help prevent it from happening again:
- Maintain a consistent calming bedtime routine. In addition to helping your child to establish a healthy sleep habits, a consistent bedtime routine also helps to ease stress and anxiety before sleeping. The chance of your child having a nightmare may decrease if she’s calm and not feeling anxious. These calming bedtime routines can include a warm bath, positive stories or simply singing a lullaby before bed.
- Keep an eye on what your child watches and reads. Fear is one of the main causes of nightmares. Most of the time, children’s fear comes from movies or books that they watch or read. Some contents are rated for children, yet they also contain monsters and some form of violence, which can cause distress in your child.
- Avoid your child being overtired. Physical activities are great for children’s development, but being overtired can also cause nightmares and other sleep problems such as sleep tantrums. Therefore, it’s important to time your little one’s nap so that they’re not too tired when going to bed at night.
- Provide a calming sleeping environment. Changing a bit of your child’s room decor can help improve your child’s sleep quality. Start by placing a calming night light, a wallpaper of their favourite cartoon series, as well as choosing a comfortable mattress and blanket.
- Identify your child’s anxiety and stress. Sometimes nightmares can be a result of anxiety or stress. Being aware of what your child experiences and what they’re anxious about can help address the root of the problem. If your child struggles to share what they feel, you can start by establishing small pillow talks before bedtime and share your stories of the day. This can help your child to be more open about their problem.
- Avoid heavy meals before bedtime. What goes into our stomach plays a big role in shaping our sleep quality. A big meal right before bed can also disturb your child’s metabolism, which can cause nightmares. Vice versa, a nutritious bedtime snack can also calm your child and increase sleep hormone production, which leads to better sleep quality.
When to seek help for children nightmares
If you feel like you have tried everything but your child keeps having a nightmare almost every night, it may be time to visit a doctor or paediatrician. Frequent nightmares can also be caused by a sleep disorder, recent traumatic event and other problems that may require medical assessment. It may also be an alarm to visit a doctor if your child’s nightmare comes with other symptoms such as behavioural changes, increased anxiety, night sweats, fever, or breathing difficulties.
It’s also recommended to create a sleep diary of your child before a visit to help your doctor find the right diagnosis. The sleep diary can include the time she’s asleep and wakes up from a nightmare every night, what she eats before bed, how often she wakes up, and her napping time.