I thought most sleepless nights would be over once my children got a little older. I knew there would be nights when we would be wide-awake with illness, growing pains, and occasional nightmares – that I was prepared for. I didn’t expect nightmare flare-ups several times a week that spanned a month or two. The odds of a sleepless night increases infinitely when you have two children, who increase your odds of a snake eyes roll of the dice into the land of nightmares. Sure I can calm a child with my old bag of tricks: mainly a dream catcher that we throw bad dreams into or sleepily letting my upset child climb into bed with me. What I can’t do is un-wake-up everyone in the entire house when a blood curdling scream has shattered the relative silence in our house at 2:30AM. What follows at that point is everyone in the house ending up in a new bed, with a new bed mate. Sometimes on rare occasions, when everyone hasn’t been wakened, there is a solitary a five-year-old star fishing in the centre of the bed between my husband and me. Let me assure you, even when only one child is awakened with a bad dream, three is definitely a crowd.
Vivid nightmares are most common for children aged three to six for two reasons:
1) this is when some of their normal fears begin to develop and
2) They have very active imaginations. Some studies estimate that around 50 percent of preschoolers have nightmares; 100 percent of my two children aged five and a half sure do!
But what can we do about it? There is no real science behind the how and why a nightmare happens. It’s assumed to be related to over-tiredness, irregular sleep routines, stress and anxiety. There are also some genetics that come into play here. Around seven percent of children who have nightmares will have a family history where their mom, dad, or other relatives suffered through nightmares too. I know that I routinely had bad dreams about snakes when I was this age, and they were terrifying.
The Sleep Foundation has suggestions for parents to help their kids better cope with and lessen the number of nightmares including:
By providing an understanding environment for kids to voice their concerns you can talk through a lot of the nightmares. Try to do this during the day when the nightmare isn’t so close. Don’t dismiss what your child is scared of or tease them about their fears. What scares them is very real to them, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
- Provide Security Objects
This can include anything from a teddy bear or blanket, to a nightlight. My snake nightmares cut down significantly when my parents bought me a giant wool snake to keep at the end of my bed. This “snake” was actually meant to put in front of doors in the winter to prevent drafts, but he still protected me from all of the other snakes and gave my parents many nights where I wasn’t calling for them in hysterics. He was, after all, the biggest snake in the world at seven feet long!
- Avoid Trigger Media
Look for clues and connections for the nightmares. Maybe there is a specific TV show that is linked to nightmares. Try skipping the ‘scary to them’ show for a while and see if the nightmares stop.
- Try To Get Your Child To Stay In Their Bed
Bringing them to you may seem like the easiest option in the middle of the night (I know we’re guilty of this), but reassure them they’re safe and give them their special security item to help them learn the coping skills they need. If they still aren’t calm, try staying with them and gently rubbing their back until they fall back asleep.
- Set Up A Bravery Award
Give your child a treat the next day for spending a solid week in their own bed, or for staying in their own bed all night, even after having a nightmare.
Good luck, and sweet dreams!