Children & Their Nightmares

By DullesMoms, Apr 2023

While nightmares are a common part of childhood development, it doesn’t make them any less distressing for the kids experiencing them, as well as the parents who want nothing more than to make them go away.

Preschool & Kindergarten

What is a Nightmare?
A nightmare is a dream — a physiologically and psychologically conscious state that occurs during sleep and is often characterized by a rich array of endogenous sensory, motor, emotional, and other experiences. (APA Dictionary of Psychology)

However, nightmares are vivid dreams that may be threatening, upsetting, bizarre, or otherwise bothersome. They occur more often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep associated with intense dreaming. Nightmares arise more frequently in the second half of the night when more time is spent in REM sleep. (Sleep Foundation)

Nightmares by Age
Nightmare’s frequency, content, and impact can vary widely across different age groups:

Newborn-12 Months Old
While infants might experience nightmares, it’s hard to tell exactly when they start having them since they cannot communicate their dreams. However, they might show signs of distress during sleep, such as crying or restlessness. Nightmares at this age might be influenced by their developing brains and the stimuli they are exposed to during their waking hours.

1-3 Years Old
Toddlers are starting to develop a vivid imagination, which can contribute to nightmares. They might have nightmares about being separated from their parents or about monsters. Consoling and reassuring the child after a nightmare is crucial at this age. Encouraging a bedtime routine and providing a comfort object, like a stuffed animal, can help.

3-5 Years Old
Nightmares can become more frequent and vivid during the preschool years. Common themes might include fears of monsters, ghosts, or animals. At this age, children are still learning to differentiate between dreams and reality so nightmares can be particularly upsetting. Parents can help by maintaining a consistent bedtime routine, offering reassurance, and encouraging the child to talk about their dreams if they wish. Avoiding scary stories or TV shows before bedtime can also help.

6-12 Years Old
As children enter school age, their nightmares might begin to reflect real-life stresses and anxieties, such as school pressures or issues with peers. Encouraging open communication about their day, as well as maintaining a relaxing bedtime routine, can be beneficial. Parents can also teach coping strategies, such as visualization or deep breathing, to help manage the stress that might contribute to nightmares.

13-18 Years Old
Nightmares in adolescents can be influenced by a variety of factors, including stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. They might experience more complex and intense nightmares that reflect their daily lives and concerns. Encouraging healthy sleep habits, managing stress, and maintaining open lines of communication are key. If nightmares are frequent and affect the adolescent’s daily functioning, seeking support from a healthcare professional might be necessary.

Across all age groups, maintaining a consistent and calming bedtime routine, ensuring the sleep environment is comfortable and safe, and providing reassurance after a nightmare can help alleviate the distress associated with nightmares.

If nightmares are frequent and significantly impacting a child’s sleep and daily functioning, it might be beneficial to seek advice from a pediatrician or sleep specialist.

Please note, this content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.