Nightmares and Night Fears
Updated: Nov 9
The thought of our children being scared at night is enough for some of us to call off the whole idea of healthy independent sleep and just want to hold them forever. The downside, however, is that the entire family would end up sleep deprived. No thank you.
Toddlers and preschool aged children have wild imaginations, and not a ton of distinction between reality versus make believe. This can lead to fears and nightmares that can negatively impact sleep.
In my own family, I absolutely limit the content my young children take in, partially because I don’t want my own sleep interrupted by their potential nightmares! As parents we do have some control, but a lot of what our children take in is unavoidable. They will hear things from their peers or even age appropriate books and music - and they are capable of extrapolating anything into a scary story.
Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when your big kid is feeling afraid or reporting nightmares.
ONE: Your reaction in the moment.
Be reassuring and loving, but aim to keep your reaction calm and confident. The goal is to not unintentionally reinforce the fear or the night waking. While our children are not manipulative, they are very smart and keenly aware of their grownups. If they recognize that when they say they are afraid, their grownups completely disregard all of the usual sleep rules, they are very likely to report feeling scared quite often.
TWO: During the day.
Talk openly about the fear, ask questions, and listen without judgment. It’s tough to even guess what stories young children think up in their developing brains. It’s helpful to really listen and understand what kind of idea they have conjured up. Otherwise, your efforts at reassuring them can really miss the mark.
I know “monster spray” is a very popular technique, and while some parents swear by it, I do not recommend it. This is when a grown up pretends that something they put in a spray bottle will keep the monsters away. Of course the intention is good, but by using “monster spray” you are telling your child that yes, monsters are real, and yes, we need to use a special spray to keep these very scary creatures away. Yikes! The follow up questions and stories they will come up with scare me!
Instead, I recommend very clearly, calmly, and confidently explaining that monsters only live in our brilliant imaginations. They can be fun to imagine, but they can never hurt us because they don’t even live in the real world. Then talk about who is real and confidently comment on how safe they always are at home. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to start limiting some of the content they might be taking in that you didn’t realize were causing these fears.
THREE: OK the feeling and empathize.
Make sure they understand feeling afraid is OK. For example, “Being afraid is OK. Even mommy feels afraid sometimes. When I feel scared, I talk about it with daddy or Grandma and they help me realize that I am safe and talking about it out loud always makes me feel better.”
FOUR: Make a habit of regularly and confidently commenting on your child’s complete and total safety with you as their competent caregiver.
It’s OK to brag about what a good parent you are directly to your child. “You are so safe because we take such good care of you. We do a lot of important things but the one thing we are the best at is keeping you safe. We are so good at it! We take super good care of you all the time - even when you can’t see us!”
FIVE: Get very clear on the sleep rules and boundaries in your home, along with a predictable and well timed bedtime routine.
They may not always act like it, but children feel safest when they know exactly what to expect from their grownups and this is especially helpful during transitions and separation. If a fear has been disrupting sleep, it might be time to firm up on rules and routine. It can help to get out the arts and crafts for a Bedtime Routine Chart that will open up conversations and play around what happens in your home when it’s time for bed.
Consider adding an extra step into your bedtime routine where you talk about something that made you feel proud of your child or offer them a happy memory they might hold in their minds as they drift off to sleep.
We never want our children to feel afraid, but the truth is that it’s one of the many very normal feelings our children will experience, and it’s always an opportunity for learning and connection.
The presence of nightmares may also be your sign that it’s time to start prioritizing healthy sleep habits in your home so the whole family can get back to easy restful nights.
If you're interested in learning more about how I can support you in improving your child's healthy sleep habits, schedule a free 15 minute discovery call today!