Many children have Nightmares at some point or other. They are entirely normal but they can be frightening and seem very real to the child experiencing them. It I really important that as adults we manage these episodes in a caring and gentle way that doesn’t perpetuate the problem.
Nightmares are frightening or vivid dreams that occur when we are in a REM dream state of sleep. They tend to happen more at times of stress or change, when the child may have something on their mind, feel uneasy or when they are trying to process something emotionally charged. They also crop up more frequently in the child is over tired.
Here are my top tips for when your little one experiences Nightmares:
1. Don’t insist that the child does not bother you when they have a nightmare. Children need to know they have ‘permission’ to come and find you if they are sick or scared, even at night.
2. Don’t force the child to re-tell their bad dreams. If they choose to tell you, that is fine. Otherwise, just leave it alone.
3. Avoid going checking for monsters in their bedroom. Whilst this is well meaning, it can reinforce the possibility that monsters ‘might’ exist and actually make children more fearful or anxious.
4. Use labels unnecessarily. Nightmares are common at times of significant growth, development or upheaval slightly, and are slightly more common amongst anxious children, but there is no need to label children unnecessarily, or go looking for a diagnosis of anxiety disorder.
1. Provide warmth and reassurance to a child who has a nightmare, even if it is the middle of the night. Give them reassurance until they are calmer and then return them to bed in the normal way
2. The next day, keep neutral and light-hearted (but don’t tease them). Don’t bring up the nightmare or ask what the nightmare was about. It is likely that the child will not precisely remember. Try normalising but being reassuring about the experience; ‘Oh, I have nightmares too – they are horrible aren’t they, but they’re not real’
3. Provide time for your child to talk to you about anything they want to, perhaps start off by asking about their day. Allow them to completely empty any concerns, worries or fears on to you head of bedtime.
4. Check and make sure that their bedroom is optimised for good sleep and remove any items which may be casting scary shadows. Ask your child if there is anything they want you to remove from their room to reassure them.
5. Top up on any lost sleep from either night time sleep or from naps. Children tend to experience more nightmares when they are overtired. Try to put them down just 15 minutes early for four consecutive nights to reduce tiredness.
6. Finishing the bedtime routine with affirmations or positive thoughts and avoiding ‘telling off’ or negativity at bedtime
Other things you could also try
- You can try a ‘bad dream’ spray. I’ve used a room fragrance spray and re-labelled it with a sticker calling it ‘bad dream spray’ or I have bought a plain water spray bottle and filled it with a ‘potion’ that you and the child can make together – perhaps water, lavender oil and some glitter. These give the children an input, and when you use it before bed, they can smell that it is there to support them
- Try introducing a nightlight to provide reassurance but make sure that the light is red, pink or orange in colour as these don’t disrupt the child’s sleep cycles and natural production of Melatonin (the sleep hormone)
- Try a dream catcher – a Native American decorative hanging ornament which traditionally traps bad dreams, a fairy door or a worry plaque – there are lots of tools that you can buy to help you reassure your child and they don’t have to cost much
- Choose a favourite toy to ‘watch over’ the child at night – a fairy, robot, teddy, or special charm could all work and provide the support that they need to face nights with confidence.
Rachael at The Sleep Sanctuary
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