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How do I help when my child has nightmares?

My three year old is waking up every night claiming he is having nightmares. He then wants to sleep in our bed to "feel safe."

What can I do to minimize these nightmares?

Karen K. Meyer | Pediatrician

Karen K. Meyer

Nightmares are a common occurrence with children of all ages. Children between the ages of three and six are more susceptible to nightmares because this is the time when their imaginations are rapidly developing. As a parent, the best way to avoid nightmares and bedtime interruptions are to follow a few simple suggestions:

Watch what you are watching on television.

Children are like sponges. They will pick up all sorts of information and visual data--even if you think they aren't paying attention. Their young minds aren't sophisticated enough to realize this information is not real.

Consistency is your friend!

Taking the time each night to follow a consistent routine will help communicate a safe environment for your young one. Routines can consist of brushing the child's teeth, a bedtime drink, choosing a book or playing a soothing song. Most importantly, having a consistent bedtime.

How is the tension in the home?

Sometimes if there is tension between parents or older children, younger children can manifest nightmares to help cope with the stress. Be careful to monitor tension in the household when children are experiencing nightmares.

Have an ally.

Little ones need an ally while they sleep. Teddy bears or plush toys can be called upon to protect children while they sleep. Let children choose their bedtime friend and encourage him or her to create a story around how the toy will protect them during the night.

Night lights are great to help protect against monsters.

There are several adorable night light designs available on the market. Choose one that only slightly illuminates the room while still promoting sleep.

Encourage your child.

If your little one has a nightmare and wakes you up, try not to be stern with them. Let them know that you are watching over them and will keep them safe. Explain that these dreams won’t hurt them. 

Avoid letting your child come to bed with you.

Letting a child come into your bed will reinforce the behavior of waking you up and asking to sleep with you. 

How does your child feel?

Sometimes, nightmares can be caused by illness. If recurring nightmares continue for more than 10 days, make an appointment to see your pediatrician.

Read more answers by Dr. Meyer