Although some toddlers might start to have occasional nightmares from the age of 2, bad dreams are more common when children get are a bit older. Unless the nightmares are regular and severe, you shouldn't worry too much about them. Sometimes a child has just had a vivid dream and when he wakes up something in his room emphasises his reaction.
What to do if your child wakes up in distress
Calmly reassure your child and cuddle him. You can play down the experience or chat about happier dreams he has talked to you about before, or have a conversation about other nice ideas that he might dream about when he goes back to sleep.
If he’s a younger toddler, he may just have woken up because he was cold and been upset because it was night and you weren’t nearby, so don’t leap to suggest a ‘bad dream’ yourself as this may put ideas in his head now and for next time.
Podcast: Getting back to sleep for 2 to 5 year olds
Don't refer to bad dreams or nightmares as 'silly', even if you’re trying to reassure your child that the terrible event or experience he thinks he dreamt about is never really going to happen (for example, being eaten by a dinosaur). Instead, value his feelings as being genuine.
You might want to stay with your child until he goes back to sleep. If you want to sleep with him, it's preferable to do this in his bedroom rather than yours, otherwise his own space becomes part of what he thinks he needs to escape from, when actually his bedroom needs to be his haven of comfort.
Tips for dealing with toddler nightmares
- Go to your child and reassure him with a hug.
- Try to get him to tell you what happened in the dream - this can help him to calm down.
- Hang a ‘dream-catcher’ above his bed and explain that any bad dreams will be trapped in there. If a nightmare occurs, it’s because the dream-catcher was full - have an emptying ceremony.
- Pinpoint anything that might be causing your child stress. Is there a new baby, have you been potty training, or is he about to start school? Reassure him about it.
- If the nightmares occur at the same time every morning, go and wake him up just before. Give him a drink of water then settle him back down.
- Speak to your health visitor if the dreams leave your child in a state of shock: he could be having night terrors.
- Accept that it’s normal – children have more nightmares than adults because they spend eight times longer in ‘dream’ sleep.
What to avoid if your child’s having nightmares
Be aware of what messages you are sending to your child. Do you say things like 'sweet dreams' to your child when actually he has the kind of imagination that will trigger the notion that dreams aren't always sweet?
- Avoid reading bedtime stories that might be scary.
- Steer clear of allowing your child to watch TV before bedtime.
- Avoid starting a potty-training programme if his bad dreams might be stress-related.
Do you lie next to your child every night as he goes to sleep? Getting himself off to sleep is a valuable lesson for a child to learn and whilst there may be times when the comfort of you snuggling with him is important (for example, a toddler getting used to the transition from a cot to a bed, or an incident like a family loss), being there during his every waking moment isn’t going to help him become a confident and happy independent sleeper.