Helping Your Child Overcome Nightmares

Helping Your Child Overcome Nightmares

Small scared child pulling blankets up to face, imagining monstersWhen children wake from nightmares, the images are fresh and seem real, so it’s natural for them to feel afraid and need comforting. Try these steps for helping your child overcome nightmares.

Reassure your child you’re there

Knowing you’re there helps strengthen your child’s sense of safety and security.

Label what’s happened

Let your child know it was just a nightmare and now it’s over. You might say something like, “I know you had a bad dream, but now you’re awake and everything is okay. I’m here.”

Help your child go back to sleep

Try offering something comforting, like a favorite stuffed animal or soft music. You may even want to remind them of happy memories they can think about or tell them about the wonderful dreams they might have as they return to sleep.

You can help prevent nightmares from occurring in the first place by taking proactive steps to help ensure your child gets a good night’s rest.


Tips to help ensure a peaceful night’s sleep for kids

Young boy fast asleep in bedFollow a calming, predictable bedtime routine every night

A warm bath, a favorite book and a few bedside snuggles helps get kids nice and drowsy and sets the stage for a solid night’s sleep.

Put kids to bed on time

A bedtime that comes too late – or too early for that matter – can lead to a restless night’s sleep. Pick a reasonable bedtime based on your child’s age and activity level and stick to it as much as possible, including on the weekend.

Avoid screen use during the hour before bedtime

Switch off the tablets, turn off the tube and put away the computer and video games! The blue light emittance, flashing images and highly stimulating content gets kids brains revved up and can make it hard for them to wind down. Watching scary movies or television shows or playing action-packed video games right before bed will certainly interrupt the sleep cycle and be a catalyst for nightmares

Consider letting siblings room in together.

Whether it’s permanent room share arrangement or the occasional sleepover, having a sibling bunking in may provide enough immediate comfort to prevent a child from running to find Mom and Dad after waking from a nightmare.

Leave the door open and the hall light on

You might be tempted to close off your child from outside stimuli at bedtime, but the truth is, kids will feel less alone and probably find it easier to drift off to the background of familiar household noises while a little light comes into the room.

Surround your child with stuffed friends!

After all, you can never have enough favorite dolls and stuffed animals piled into the bed with you!

Don’t allow sugar or heavy snacks before bedtime

Milk & Cookies with a NO Symbol over themYou want children’s bodies to be calm and relaxed for bedtime, not amped up with a blood sugar spike or working to digest a meal. So avoid letting kids partake in the cookies and milk, ice cream or cocoa right before bed. Aim to serve dinner at least 2 hours before bedtime as well in order to avoid digestive issues interfering with a good night’s sleep.

Some examples of some great bedtime snack choices for kids include:

  • Low sugar yogurt.
  • A few whole wheat crackers or half a slice of wheat toast with peanut butter or hummus.
  • A slice of deli chicken or turkey wrapped around a slice of cheese.
  • Small cup of low sugar oatmeal or whole grain cereal (with or without milk).
  • A banana.

Nightmares usually occur infrequently and simply require a parent’s comfort and reassurance. However, if nightmares are occurring quite often, preventing your child from getting enough sleep or causing behavioral issues, talk to your family doctor about them.


Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.

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