life of
dr. mom

Nightmares in Toddlers

Two years ago for an entire week, Madi has woken up suddenly in the middle of the night from nightmares. She is in tears and terrified of the spooky monsters running around her room.  To calm her down, I would end up cuddling her and sleeping with her in her bed. This left me exhausted as Madi is very cuddly and invades my personal sleep bubble. 

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are scary or upsetting dreams that wake a person up and make it difficult for them to go back to sleep. Children might wake up crying and feeling afraid to sleep. 

Nightmares are different than night terrors. Night terrors are a partial waking from sleep with behaviors such as kicking, screaming, and possibly even jumping out of bed. Children do not remember night terrors the next morning.

How to help a child with nightmares?

I reviewed resources from Stanford University and the Canadian Paediatric Society on ways we can help our child with nightmares: 

  • Comfort, reassure and cuddle your child 
  • Talk about the bad dreams in the morning and ask them about what scared them so you can understand the situation better
  • Avoid watching frightening movies or TV shows
  • Leave the door open and do not close the door on a fearful child
  • Provide a stuffed animal or toy for comfort
  • During the bedtime routine, talk about happy or fun things
  • Help your child work through fears by reading books, making up stories or even drawing the monster that scares them 

What happened with Madi?

When Madi runs into our room crying, I make sure to hug her immediately and tell her she is safe and loved.  I started talking to Madi about her dreams and drawing the monsters that she saw in her room.  Now Madi calls the monsters her “monsti friends”.  She became more reassured that they were not going to harm her and that they were not real. After a week of interrupted sleep Madi has returned to sleeping through the entire night again.

Talk to your child’s health care provider if the nightmares become worse or occur more often, if the fear begins to interfere with daytime activities or if it is leading to family stress. 

This post was co-authored by Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc and Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP. 

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