Chloe Picot-Jacobs, LCSW
The Science Behind Children’s Nightmares: What Every Parent Should Know
Nightmares in Children
Nightmares are a near universal human experience. Up to 90% of the population experiences at last one nightmare in their lifetime. Having nightmares at any age is unsettling, but, for children, it can be particularly frightening. Unlike adults, kids may misunderstand nightmares to be genuinely threatening, and, because nightmares are more common in childhood, they may rightly feel that they are happening over and over.
In this post, we’ll cover what parents can expect as their children develop. We’ll explore when parents should worry (or not) about their kids’ nightmares, and what they can do to help their children get a good night’s sleep, even when they’re going through a phase of frequent nightmares.
What are nightmares? Are they normal?
Although they don’t necessarily happen often, nightmares, like other kinds of dreams, are absolutely normal!
The Sleep Health Foundation draws several comparisons between typical dreams and nightmares, explaining that both take place during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and may be vivid. While ordinary dreams don’t interrupt sleep, nightmares wake people up with themes, images, and events that are scary or upsetting. Humans have noticeable physiological stress responses to nightmares, including sweating and increased heart rate. Additionally, people often remember their nightmares in greater detail than other dreams, both in terms of what occurred and what was visualized.
While dreams are unpredictable, and may not connect directly to our daily lives, they do tend to reflect our life stage. For example, a child in elementary school might dream about taking a test in class, whereas a toddler who has never been in a classroom would not.
What is the difference between bad dreams and nightmares? Nightmares vs. night terrors?
A few terms like “nightmares, “bad dreams,” and “night terrors,” are often used interchangeably. However, each of these have differences. We can have dreams with scary, sad, or upsetting elements that don’t cause disruption to our rest, although we may remember them in the morning. Nightmares usually refer to bad dreams that are so intense that the person wakes up from sleep. Night terrors are even more severe. According to Johns Hopkins, children may wake up from night terrors sweating, screaming, or appearing confused. They may seem fully or partially asleep during these signs of distress. It is generally harder to calm a child waking up from a night terror than it is to calm them down after a nightmare. Following a night terror, children are unlikely to be able to describe what was happening in the dream, whereas the content of nightmares can usually be described. Finally, nightmares take place during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycle, while night terrors do not.
Why do nightmares happen?
The nature of sleep is a bit of a mystery, even to those who spend their entire lives studying it! Our understanding of what, exactly, causes nightmares is limited, but Dr. Barry Krakow, of the Sleep & Human Health Institute, explains that nightmares are typically thought to be caused by stress, illness, and certain medications. Sleep challenges such as going to bed exhausted or having highly variable bedtimes are another factor. Additionally, people managing mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, are more likely to report having nightmares. For children, who go through numerous developmental leaps and have active imaginations, nightmares may be a part of their growth process, like tantrums are a phase for many young kids.
At what age do nightmares start?
While there aren’t definitive answers for when nightmares will appear in childhood, or when exactly they’ll resolve, we do have a general idea of what to expect.
Nightmares in infants
While babies twitch, open their eyes, and even cry in their sleep, true nightmares are rare until later in childhood. If babies dream, they are simple in content and lack vivid images. Even if a baby were to have a nightmare, they would not remember it.
Nightmares in Toddlers (2-3 years old)
Dr. Harvey Karp, of Happiest Baby, explains that babies begin having dreams more like those adults imagine around age two. Nightmares are not as common an occurrence for toddlers as they are for slightly older children.
Nightmares in Preschoolers (3-5 years old)
The frequency of nightmares tends to peak around preschool, when children’s imaginations are becoming extremely vivid. At this age, dreams are believed to be less like stories or events and more like still frames.
Nightmares in Kids (6-10 years old)
Aside from nightmares themselves, this age group tends to have the most worries about nightmares happening to them. This may be because they can remember their dreams better than before, or because dreams at this age tend to be increasingly complex. The good news is that, between six and nine years old, the frequency of nightmares tends to fade.
Nightmares in Early Adolescence (11-15 years old)
Nightmares in this age group are infrequent. By middle school, most kids have little to no fear about nightmares, and this is unlikely to be a worry that keeps them from sleeping at night.
Nightmares every night: is this a problem?
Having bad dreams now and then, or for a limited period of time related to stress, is not a cause for concern. While it is uncommon, some children are so significantly impacted by nightmares that they may reach the level of a sleep disorder. Rest assured that nightmare-related sleep disorders are unlikely to be the reason your child has nightmares. When in doubt, speak with your child’s pediatrician, as a formal assessment is necessary to diagnose a sleep disorder.
If you think your child is having nightmares due to overwhelming daytime stress or anxiety, this may be something to explore with your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional.
When to Get Help for Children’s Nightmares
In general, bad dreams or nightmares are an unpleasant but healthy part of development. Here are a few situations that may indicate it’s time to speak to a professional about them:
Your child is consistently overtired due to being woken by nightmares. If nightmares are so frequent that your child isn’t getting the rest they need for their age, this can be a problem. Children need sleep for healthy physical and cognitive development. If your child is overtired, they may fall asleep at unusual times, such as in the middle of meals or play. They may also appear groggy and struggle to focus. Like adults, a child who isn’t getting enough sleep can present as extremely cranky and become upset more easily than normal. Overtiredness is a common trigger for meltdowns and challenging behavior, which can be tough on the whole family. Unfortunately, exhaustion actually leads to worse sleep, not better or longer stretches of rest. If your child does not catch up on their sleep after a few days, and appears increasingly tired, consider speaking to your pediatrician.
Your child is consistently overtired because they fight sleep to avoid nightmares. Once children have experienced a nightmare (or a few), it is natural for them to be worried about them happening again. Nightmares can be profoundly frightening! Some children are so afraid of nightmares that they fight sleep for hours and don’t get the sleep they need as a result. Occasionally being hesitant to fall asleep, or fighting sleep for a few minutes, is unlikely to disrupt your child’s overall sleep. Keeping themselves awake for hours, and doing so for days or weeks in a row, can be unhealthy.
Your child recently experienced a major change, stressor, or potentially traumatic event, and began having nightmares shortly afterward. Nightmares following a major life event, particularly if they were unexpected and frightening to the child, are often a sign that they need extra support. Nightmares alone are not enough to indicate a person is having a trauma response, but they can be one of a set of symptoms. Recurring nightmares of the stressor or change itself, such as dreaming about car accidents after being in a real one, is another sign that the nightmares are related to the event.
Your child’s nightmares have been frequent and intense for a long time, with no sign of improvement. Like most physical or emotional concerns, something that goes on for weeks or months without getting any better is a good metric for seeking support. Also take into consideration your child’s level of distress. If they have had nightmares for a week or two, but are extremely distraught, this may be more concerning than a child who has had nightmares for longer, but is generally coping well and unbothered by them.
How can I explain nightmares to my kids?
Kids are naturally curious. They may also feel they have more control over their nightmares if they can understand what is happening, and why. Parents may feel at a loss for what to say when their child asks about nightmares. At Happypillar, we encourage parents to balance honesty with their child’s age and developmental level. We can tell kids the truth while remaining developmentally appropriate. This means only providing details that will be useful to children’s understanding. You know your child best, so use what you know about them to inform what, and how much, to share with them. Remember that you can always pause before entering difficult conversations, or in the middle of them! If you are not sure how to answer, you can let your child know that you are going to pause and find out more information, but that you will come back to the conversation. It is better to be honest about being uncertain than giving your child false information.
Here are a few things you can share with kids, adjusting your wording based on their level of understanding:
Dreams can feel very scary, but even the scariest dream can’t hurt our bodies. Even during the worst nightmare, they are safe.
Other kids dream, and grown-ups do, too!
Animals like elephants, cats, and dogs also dream. If you have a pet, they’ve probably had their own nightmares!
Dreams are important to for keeping our brains and bodies healthy
Many people have dreams that they don’t remember!
Although some dreams aren’t fun, others can be exciting and give us new ideas
How can I help my child with nightmares?
Show calm and confidence
If your child believes that you are scared that they’ll have a nightmare, they will adopt the
same fear! Before starting your child’s bedtime routine, do something relaxing for your own nervous system, like visualizing somewhere peaceful or taking a few deep breaths. You can validate your child’s emotions while reminding them that you are sure they will be safe.
Many kids lessen fears by learning more about a subject. Try reading kid-friendly books about nightmares together, highlighting interesting facts, and talking about what their friends or favorite animal might dream about.
Make space for your child to share
Allowing your child to detail their nightmares to you and describe the emotions they felt
can give you insight into their internal world, and help them process and move past the
Create a calm and consistent bedtime routine
As mentioned above, irregular sleep and overtiredness can actually cause nightmares! A predictable bedtime routine will help signal to your child’s brain that it is time to wind down and rest. Plus, when kids know what to expect, they feel more in-control and regulated, making it less likely for bedtime to lead to arguing or tantrum behavior. Add your child’s favorite scent, like lavender or vanilla, a nightlight, and a special blanket or stuffed animal to their room to make it extra relaxing.
Start bedtime on a positive note
Children with nightmares may start to associate bedtime with fear and fighting sleep. To start your routine off with positi
vity, choose something enjoyable like having your child choose a song to play, or having your Happypillar one-on-one time together.
If you promise your child that they won’t have a nightmare in order to convince them to go to bed, they may end up having a nightmare and becoming even more stressed the next night. This will cause a negative feedback loop of stress before bed potentially causing more nightmares, followed by more stress, and so on.
Adults have the perspective to know that nightmares are temporary, but trying to convince kids they’re no big deal is unlikely to help. For kids, nightmares ARE a big deal! Be sure to listen without judgment about the content, as well, even if what happened in a nightmare doesn’t sound upsetting or realistic to you, it may have significance to them.
It may be tempting to tell a child to simply not think about their nightmares, but relying on avoidance as a strategy actually
Resort to punishment
As frustrating as it can be when kids resist bedtime, creating more tension around it will not solve the underlying issue. Approaches like threats, criticism, or taking away privileges as a way to get your child to try to go to sleep will cause them to further associate bedtime with negativity and stress.
Nightmares in Kids
Many parents find it upsetting when their child has a nightmare, especially when they want to help, but aren’t sure how. We can’t control whether or not nightmares happen to our kids, but by trying the techniques above, we may bring comfort and calm back to bedtime. For more ideas and information, see the resources in the next section.
Books for Kids
What Do You Do With a Problem by Kobi Yamada
The Nice Dream Truck by Beth Ferry
Sweet Dreams: Bedtime Visualizations for Kids by Mariam Gates
Tiger vs Nightmare by Emily Tetri
Books for Caregivers
What can I do about my child's nightmares?
Nightmares and Night Terrors
How to Help Kids with Nightmares