One of the more frightening experiences I’ve had as a mother is waking up to my little one’s ghastly scream, seeing him en-gulfed in tears. Indeed, when your toddler has a bad dream, you wake up to a nightmare.
Yet, dreams are quite normal.
“Everyone dreams four or five times each night,” writes B.D. Schmitt, M.D., in his book Your Child’s Health. “Some dreams are good, some are bad. Nightmares are scary dreams that awaken a child. Occasional bad dreams are normal at all ages after about six months of age,” Schmitt further says.
Has your baby cried and screamed at night? He may have had a bad dream, and won’t be soothed until someone comes to him. Preschoolers would usually cry and run into their parents’ bedroom when they have nightmares. As for older children, Dr. Schmitt says, “[They] begin to understand what a nightmare is and put themselves back to sleep without waking their parents.”
The age between one and two is an unusually exciting time for kids. It’s when your little one starts crawling away from mommy’s protective arms and running out onto the world. Raffy Reloza, child psychologist and co-owner of L.E.A.P. preschool, says, “This is the first time they start dealing with emotions, with pleasure. It’s when their imaginations are at their peak. Toddlers have to deal with all sorts of developmental changes. They start walking and there’s a mixture of thrill and fear there. They start having friends and at the same time begin experiencing separation anxiety. This is also the time when they start potty training, which could be quite stressful for a toddler.”
These experiences will make up most of your child’s dreams. Dr. Schmitt explains, “Dreams help the mind process complicated events or information. The content of nightmares usually relates to developmental challenges.”
Reloza adds, “Freud defines a dream as the royal road to the unconscious. A dream is the product of the unconscious self. It’s our unconscious trying to talk to us. So if your toddler is having a bad dream, he’s just trying to make sense of all the things happening in and around him.”
Nevertheless, a nightmare could be a terrifying ordeal for a toddler because he believes it to be real. For the parent, the challenge lies in trying to tell him that dreams are not real.
“You can say that a dream is something he might have thought of before going to bed. You can say that dreams are just pictures in our heads. We all have pictures in our heads. We imagine things and we can control it. Tell him he can control his dreams by thinking of only good things,” says Reloza.
According to Dr. Schmitt, violent shows or horror movies may cause bedtime fears and nightmares in some children. “These fears can persist for months or years. Absolutely forbid these movies before 13 years of age. The maturity and sensitivity of your child must be considered carefully in deciding when he is ready to deal with the uncut versions of R-rated movies.”
Sometimes, loud noise from the stereo or television can also bring about nightmares. Other times, it could be that the child just had too much excitement during the day. In a few instances, the child may just be reacting to medicines or suffering from a food allergy.
Reloza adds, “A nightmare might also be brought on by events happening within the family, such as a death or separation. Kids are very sensitive about these things and their dreams talk about how they feel inside.”
Indeed, most nightmares can be attributed to a toddler’s everyday experiences. Changes in a toddler’s schedule like mommy returning to full-time work, the birth of a baby sister or a new yaya may cause nightmares.
In these instances, make sure that your child understands these changes. Help him deal with them by talking to him and asking him how he feels about it. More importantly, reassure him that things will be okay. Sometimes, all that your baby needs for the nightmares to go away is some good old-fashioned love and attention from mommy and daddy.
Sweet dreams only
Here's how you could make bedtime a nightmare-free experience.
1. Create a safe haven.
“Let him fix his room the way he wants it. Kids are very ego-centric. If they fix their things, they’ll feel they own the room. They’ll feel safer,” says Reloza.
2. Make bedtime a happy event.
Don’t send your toddler up to his room every time he does something “bad.” He’ll come to associate his bedroom with “bad” feelings.
3. Establish a bedtime ritual.
About half an hour before bedtime, start getting ready for bed. Give him his milk. Brush his teeth. Get him into his pajamas.
4. Monitor his television viewing habits.
Avoid scary movies.
5. Think happy thoughts.
Prepare him for bedtime by reading him a nice story or playing a lullabye song.
6. Tuck him into bed.
Nothing could be more comforting for a child than to be tucked into bed by his parent with a little prayer and a warm kiss. It makes for a good night’s sleep.
7. When your child does have a nightmare, stay calm.
It wouldn’t help the child for you to get hysterical. Don’t shout at him or shake him. Cuddle up to him until he settles and quiets down. Your presence is a comfort to him.
8. Turn on the lights.
Switching the lights on gives him a perspective of where he is. If he sees that he’s in his bedroom with mommy and daddy at his side, he’ll calm down faster.
9. Don’t take him out of bed, unless you absolutely have to.
Reassure him that everything is okay.
10. Ask him about the nightmare.
Talk about it. Let him realize that what he was dreaming wasn’t real.
11. Face the monster.
By daytime, Dr. Schmitt suggests, “Your child may not remember what the dream was about unless you can remind him of something he said about it when he woke up. If your child was dreaming about falling or being chased, reassure him that lots of children dream about that. If your child has the same bad dream over and over again, help him imagine a good ending to the bad dream. Encourage your child to use a strong person or a magic weapon to help him overcome the bad person or event in the dream.”
12. Consult a doctor.
If your child’s nightmare fears start interfering with his daytime activities, seek the help of a professional.