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Help kids say goodnight to nightmares

Adventist Health Health and Wellness, Mind

When scary dreams wake your kids up at night, it can be a bit of a nightmare for you too-especially if your little one has trouble getting back to sleep.

But rest assured: Nightmares are normal in childhood. And while you can’t prevent them completely, there’s a lot you can do to help kids sleep tight.

4 ways to help kids have sweet dreams

To help kids start off the night right, try these tips:

  1. Stick to a schedule. Do your best to see that your child goes to bed and wakes up at the same times each day. Regular routines help kids sleep soundly.
  2. Make bedtime soothing. Snuggle with your child, read a calming story or talk about the day’s best moments. And avoid frightening shows, stories or games right before bed.
  3. Get relaxed. Encourage your youngster to imagine something peaceful when falling asleep. Maybe that’s a favorite place or a pretty picture.
  4. Shed some light. A night-light can help chase away nightmares-as long as it doesn’t interfere with sleep. To make the dark less scary in the long run, plan some fun nighttime activities. Ooh and aah at the stars together or play flashlight tag.

4 ways to respond to a nightmare

If bad dreams wake your child up in the night, try these ideas:

  1. Comfort right away. Your presence can help your child feel safe and get back to sleep more quickly than waiting it out. Just don’t make a habit of being in the room while your child falls asleep.
  2. Listen lovingly. Let your child tell you what happened in the dream and be understanding. Share what makes you feel better after a bad dream. Or help your youngster imagine a different ending to the nightmare.
  3. Let kids stay put. It’s generally better to soothe kids in their own beds-not yours. To make the room feel safer, you might use “monster spray” to make scary creatures disappear. Or let kids bring a favorite toy, blanket or pet to bed.
  4. Come back. If kids get anxious when you leave, it’s OK to check back in until they nod off. But reappear on a timetable-say every 5 or 10 minutes-not whenever they call out. That will help keep nighttime wake-up calls from becoming a habit.

If steps like this don’t help-and your child’s nightmares persist or get worse-be sure to tell your child’s doctor.

"Sometimes toddlers and preschoolers can also experience night terrors," says Debra Johnson, MS, RN, CPNP, FNP-C, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Adventist Health's Gresham Station Family Practice Clinic. "If your child experiences these intense episodes of crying, sweating, thrashing or kicking, while not awake, your instinct might be to wake them up. The best thing you can do is try to comfort them until the night terror passes in a few minutes. In the morning your child likely won't remember it happening at all," she adds.

Additional information on Nightmares and Night Terrors from the American Academy of Pediatrics can be found at