Why toddlers have nightmares

Printer iconPrint article

It’s very distressing for parents when their toddler starts having nightmares, but all young children have them at one time or another. Toddlers begin to have nightmares from the age of two onwards and they are most common as they reach the age of around four. They usually occur as a young child moves from deep sleep in the middle of the night to lighter sleep in the early hours of the morning. That’s why you may be woken suddenly by a piercing scream at 4am.

What causes nightmares in toddlers?

No matter how much you try to protect them, young children experience stresses and strains in their lives, just as adults do. Watching something disturbing on TV or something new that happened at nursery is enough to trigger a nightmare in the growing brain of the happiest toddler. They are processing their daily life, just as adults do during sleep, and even the most balanced adults have nightmares sometimes.

Maybe you have a new baby or you’ve moved recently or redecorated your house? Just about anything new that a two year old might find strange or unusual could set off a period of bad dreams. Little children are so imaginative and they are still sorting out reality from fantasy. Sometimes a small, seemingly insignificant event can upset them.

What’s the best way to deal with nightmares?

First of all, it’s not your fault. You haven’t done anything to cause your child’s nightmares. Toddlers are processing so much new information it’s not surprising that they find some of it difficult to make sense of. So what’s the best way to deal with it? Firstly, keep calm. However upset your toddler is (and they can be very scared) don’t get upset yourself. If you are calm, they will be reassured. A cuddle and some gentle stroking are certainly needed.

But they need the rest of the night’s sleep, so do your best to settle them down again. Ask about the dream and if necessary show them that there is no monster under the bed or in the cupboard. But don’t dwell on it. Explain that it’s just a dream, even though it may not mean that much to your toddler at this stage.

How to prevent nightmares

The best way is to establish a bedtime routine. Tired toddlers become far more easily stressed and are more vulnerable to nightmares, so a peaceful time before sleep, reading a favourite book or playing some soothing music is best. Perhaps something they’ve eaten might not agree with them, so see if the nightmares happen after a particular meal. If it’s monsters under the bed or cupboard scaring them, fill a spray bottle filled with water and spritz the room to get rid of them, brush them out with a broom or choose a special soft toy to frighten them off in the night.

If bad dreams persist, particularly if there is a recurring theme, there may be something upsetting your toddler that they need to talk about. If you’re concerned, visit your doctor or ask your health visitor for advice.