Soothing Your Child After a Nightmare
by Michelle Xiarhos Curran

A new baby sister, the neighbor's barking dog, a blaring fire alarm, shadows on the wall - whatever it is that causes them, nightmares are a common part of childhood.

"Like for all of us, childhood nightmares are about what we couldn't digest in our waking hours," says child psychiatrist Joshua Sparrow, M.D., co-author of Touchpoints, Birth to Three and a series of books, including Sleep The Brazelton Way, with renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.

Nightmares - bad dreams occurring several hours into sleep - may make your child cry out, shiver, run to you for comfort or fear going back to sleep. Though children ages 4 to 6 may be especially prone to them, nightmares can occur as early as age 2, according to Sparrow. Toddlers might dream about losing their way or facing danger without their parents around to help. Their nightmares are troubling for parents - who are seeing their child experience them for the first time - as well as the tots, who cannot truly understand that what they've dreamed is not real.

If your toddler is experiencing nightmares:

  • Don't ignore the situation by simply telling your child to go back to bed.
  • Do listen to and comfort your child. "Come up with rituals that reassure," Sparrow says. Sing a lullaby, rock him, turn on a nightlight and, if necessary, check under the bed to show him that there are no monsters. "My mother would say, 'If you tell me your nightmare, it won't come back again,'" Sparrow says. "I found that very convincing." 

  • Do pay attention to things going on in your child's life. "Sometimes nightmares are more disturbing and happen more under stress," Sparrow says. An addition to the family or the death of a friend or relative can be especially stressful to a toddler, who can't accurately perceive the situation.

Nightmares should not be confused with night terrors, which are normal in children ages 18 months to 6 years and can be more frightening for parents than kids. During a night terror, a child is unresponsive and might have a racing heartbeat and rapid breathing. A toddler might thrash around in bed and babble. As she gets older, she may scream. But because night terrors occur when there is no dreaming - about two hours after the child falls asleep - she will have no dream to speak of or memory of the "terror."

If your toddler is experiencing night terrors:

  • Don't touch or speak to her. She's more likely to go back to sleep if she isn't roused.

  • Do move objects that may hurt her if she's moving around.

  • Do make sure she gets adequate rest during naps and at night.