Toddler nightmares: Why they happen and what to do

Toddler nightmares: Why they happen and what to do

From birth you may have noticed your child smiling, grimacing, or twitching in their sleep and thought to yourself, “I wonder what my baby is dreaming about?” Although it’s not clear if babies actually have dreams, we do know there is a lot of brain activity happening while babies sleep. 

All this brain activity is certainly the cause for all those facial expressions and noises you’ve seen! What we do know is that toddlers DO dream and sometimes they can even experience bad dreams. If your child is waking up unsettled or has a difficult time sleeping you’re probably wondering if bad dreams could be the reason and what YOU can do to help them.

Note: Nightmares may begin as young as 6 months of age and are most frequent between 3 and 12 years old. 


IN THIS ARTICLE:

Why do nightmares happen?

How do I help my kids with nightmares?

Sleep tips to prevent nightmares

How are nightmares different from night terrors?

Nightmares FAQ


Just like adults, toddlers dream frequently. Oftentimes dreams are related to the day’s events, faces or objects we see, playtime, and interactions with friends and family. It is unclear about why we dream but there are studies that show dreams play a role with brain function.

Of course, some dreams can be a bit bothersome or even wake us from our sleep. Although the exact cause of nightmares isn’t known, toddlers and older children are more likely to experience nightmares when they are overtired or experiencing stress

There are many ways that parents can help comfort their toddlers with nightmares - physical reassurance, communication, and emotional reassurance. 

While an occasional nightmare may be unavoidable there are some proven ways to help toddlers with nightmares. 

If your child wakes up suddenly and appears to be very shaken or scared it may be helpful to offer a comforting back or belly rub and speak to them in a soft, gentle voice. 

If a gentle touch and comforting words don’t do the trick, rest assured it is OK to pick your child up and spend some time rocking and singing with them until they relax.

If your child does not settle down within a few minutes, try turning on a very dim light and talking to your child about how they’re feeling. Although babies and toddlers may have difficulty communicating what’s wrong, it is important to allow children to express themselves. Even if you don’t understand exactly what they’re saying, just keep the “lines of communication open” and offer plenty of snuggles as they settle into your arms. 

Since overtiredness increases the likelihood of nightmares in toddlers and baby, the best way to prevent bad dreams is to ensure your child gets to bed on time and naps well during the day.

Tip: To encourage an age-appropriate bedtime, be sure to allow approximately 5 - 6 hours of awake time between your toddler or preschooler’s nap and bedtime. You will also want to limit daytime sleep to 2 - 3 hours.

Once you’ve ensured your child’s schedule is age-appropriate it is time to move on to help them with any fears they may have. Many toddlers and preschoolers develop fears as their imagination blossoms. For many toddlers, fears surrounding “monsters” or the dark are very common. Try to talk to your child about any fears they may have. Again, they may have some difficulty explaining what they’re fearful of, but simply listening is a huge comfort to children this age. 

Tip: If your child is afraid of “monsters” or has unidentified fears you may want to try installing a non-blue light night-light in their bedroom. Your kiddo may want that extra security of being able to see “what is out there”! 

Evaluate the content your child may be watching on TV or devices. Although content may be deemed suitable for young children, some shows, movies, and apps may contain images that can frighten young children. Scenes depicting a “mean” or scary character or those that are of dark skies and heavy storms can cause a potential stress response in toddlers and preschoolers.

There are a few key differences between nightmares and night terrors: Nightmares usually occur more than 3 hours after your child has fallen asleep, and are often triggered by fears your child may have about things like monsters, the dark, or thunderstorms. Night terrors happen earlier in the night, usually 1 - 2 hours after falling asleep, and occur when a child doesn’t make the transition between sleep stages properly. 

When children experience a nightmare, they may whimper in their sleep, or cry out softly. Children experiencing a nightmare can be woken up and are easily consoled. During a night terror, your child may shout or thrash in their sleep. Although it’s terrifying to witness a night terror, there’s no need to wake them. In the morning, your child will have no memory of the night terror, whereas they’re usually able to recall bad dreams.

Night terrors are linked to poor sleep habits and are often triggered by not getting enough sleep, or staying awake too long before sleeping (overtiredness). In this case, it’s important to evaluate your child’s sleep schedule and make adjustments, like encouraging a daily nap and moving bedtime earlier.

Nightmares FAQ

Q: How to help kids with nightmares?

A:

You can help your child with nightmares by instituting healthy sleep habits including age-appropriate sleep schedules, a conducive sleep environment, and discussions with your child about fears. Healthy sleep habits begin with a predictable and consistent bedtime routine. Plan for your toddler’s bedtime routine to take 30 - 45 minutes including time for a warm bath, storytime, and cuddles. Tip: It is not important that each caregiver to follow exactly the same bedtime routine. Children have different expectations for every caregiver. For example, it is OK if mom always reads a story before singing and dad likes to sing first, followed by a story. It is only important that your child knows the routine and that it cues sleep is on the horizon for them.

Q: Why do kids have nightmares?

A:

Experts have yet to discover exactly why toddler nightmares occur. However, we have been able to link bad dreams to overtiredness, poor sleep routines, and stress. Children who chronically suffer from sleep deprivation are more at risk for nightmares which is why resolving sleep challenges is so important for toddlers.

Q: How do I stop my child from having nightmares?

A:

If your child is experiencing frequent nightmares the first step you can take is to help them get on an age-appropriate schedule. For many toddlers, daily naps are still crucial to their development and help prevent nightmares due to overtiredness. Additionally, take the time to talk with your child. You may ask them if they prefer the door open or closed; if they prefer a nightlight or if they’d prefer to sleep without light.

Q: What causes a child to have nightmares?

A:

The exact reason we have nightmares is still uncertain, but stressful events are assumed to be a major influencer on the frequency and intensity of bad dreams. If your toddler or preschooler struggles with transitions (e.g. being dropped off at daycare or ending playtime) these may be stress-inducing events that can lead to more frequent nightmares. To help your toddler with transitions, do your best to stick to a consistent daytime routine and allow extra time for difficult transitions to prevent overtiredness and stress (for you both).

Q: Is my toddler having nightmares?

A:

If your toddler is generally a good sleeper and has begun waking up crying or screaming it is possible they had a nightmare. Toddler nightmares typically occur in the later part of the night/early morning. Earlier wakings are more likely the result of parent-dependent sleep associations such as being rocked to sleep or falling asleep next to a caregiver.

Q: Are nightmares a bad thing?

A:

No one likes nightmares - they get your heart racing, wake you up from your sleep, and sometimes make it very difficult to fall back asleep! Nightmares are unpleasant and we want to do everything we can to prevent them (especially when it comes to our children). However, occasional nightmares are normal. For adults, nightmares can help us overcome fears we experience in day-to-day life, but it’s yet to be proven if nightmares can help children better manage stress.

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Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.