Nightmares and night terrors: Help children cope

Toddlers and preschoolers are more likely to experience nightmares and night terrors because of their age and level of development. Learn how to comfort and guide them through this transition in life.

Dreams and nightmares are very normal for preschoolers. Nightmares are very scary dreams which frighten a child. They are a common and normal part of growing up. They can reflect an emotional struggle, usually quite normal, that goes on during the course of the day. It is not certain exactly when nightmares start to occur, but according to the American Academy of Pediatrics they commonly start in toddlers and older children. As your child becomes more able to communicate, he can tell you what happened. You can tell your child that his dreams are pictures inside his head that are pretend and can’t hurt him. This is difficult with younger toddlers because they may not understand the difference between a dream and reality. This will cause the toddler to still be afraid even after he wakes up because he doesn’t realize the dream is over. If your child experiences a nightmare, hold and comfort him when he wakes up. Your child is genuinely afraid and needs your security and warm embrace. It is very important for the adult to remain calm. Also, don’t try to convince your child the dream wasn’t real, just comfort and reassure him that he is safe.

Another common thing that may happen with toddlers and preschoolers is night terrors. Night terrors occur as a result of an inadequate transition from a deep, non-dreaming sleep state to the next phase of sleep. As a child’s nervous system matures, he may have difficulty moving from one phase to another and show signs of terror. Some characteristics of night terrors are screaming hysterically, rapid breathing and crying out loud during the night. Often times the child appears awake because they may have their eyes open and could even be out of their bed or sitting upright. Although your child’s eyes may be open they are not aware you are there so trying to console your child will likely add confusion. It is best to allow your child to cry and then independently return to sleep. However, if your child continues to cry longer than 20 minutes or awakens and cannot go back to sleep independently, it may be necessary to offer extra comfort and reassurance.

Helping your child feel safe, loved and acknowledging his fears as valid are very important to help him cope. Fears are real for adults and children and of course children may internalize their fears differently than adults because they have less understanding and experiences with the world.

For more information on the natural sleep patterns and requirements of children, see these articles by other Michigan State University Extension educators:

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