As any parent who has awakened to a screaming child in the middle of the night knows, nightmares are an unfortunately common part of childhood. They can be so vivid and terrifying that parents often wonder if their child’s nightmares are a sign of something wrong with their child or some as yet undiscovered trauma. Take heart; nightmares are normally a result of the normal brain development of children, and while they can be scary and stressful, they are not normally cause for concern. Here’s what you can do to limit the frequency and severity of your child’s nightmares:
Talk About Stress
There are many theories about the precise causes of nightmares and the meanings of specific symbols in nightmares. However, one thing is clear: dreams are a way for your brain to work through the events, thoughts, and feelings of the day. Children who are under stress and have no outlet for this stress are more likely to have nightmares. If your child sees a scary movie, gets in a fight with a friend, or experiences another upsetting event, make sure to talk to her about it, and don’t talk about it right before sleep.
Put Good Dreams In Your Child’s Eyes
When I was a child, my mom would have me close my eyes right before bed, then touch my eyes and give me “good dream ideas.” As a kid, I thought it was mother magic that was preventing me from having nightmares. Now, as an adult, I know that there’s good science behind this practice: the things we think about before we go to sleep affect the things we dream about. If you talk about pleasant things with your child right before bed, and even talk about dreams your child would like to have instead of nightmares, he’s less likely to have bad dreams.
Be Careful With Bedtime Stories
No parent would deliberately read their child a scary bedtime story, but many popular children’s stories have elements that can trigger nightmares. Magical, scary-looking creatures, dragons, and stories about monsters can all send children’s wheels spinning into nightmare territory. Choose bedtime reading carefully.
For a variety of reasons, giving children caffeine is a bad health decision. And here’s one more: a child who has caffeine’s sleep cycles may be interrupted or altered, increasing the likelihood of nightmares. Just don’t do it. And if your child is older and occasionally drinks caffeine, make sure they have no caffeine 5 hours before bed.
No TV Before Bed
TV is not only a prime culprit in scary bedtime stories; it can also temporarily alter the way your child’s brain processes information, increasing the likelihood of nightmares. Further, it overstimulates your child and leads to a crash rather than allowing your child to drift naturally into sleep. Turn off the television an hour before bedtime.
An overtired, overstimulated child is a child who is likely to experience nightmares. Whenever possible, ease your child into a bedtime ritual rather than allowing your child to stay up past the point of exhaustion. His sleep cycles will function more normally as a result, thus lessening the likelihood of nightmares.
Preventing nightmares altogether is a difficult venture, but it is possible to make nightmares less scary and less frequent. Provide an environment in which your child understands that nightmares are not real and that you will be there to comfort her if she has a bad dream. And if all else fails, reassure yourself that nightmares are just a temporary phase and will become less frequent with each year of your child’s life.