How to Prevent Nightmares or Night Terrors

Boy checking under his bed with a flashlight
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Nothing can make a parent feel more helpless than when their child has a nightmare or even worse, a night terror. Unfortunately, nightmares and night terrors can be common for preschool-aged children due to a growing awareness of the world around them and an over-active imagination. But there are things you can do to help prevent nightmares and night terrors.

What Causes Nightmares

A nightmare is a dream that evokes a strong emotional response from someone who is sleeping. They tend to happen later at night, during the second half of sleep during REM (rapid eye movement), when we are dreaming. They can be caused by just about anything and are very common in preschool-aged children.

Your preschooler may have a nightmare because of something obvious like listening to a scary story or seeing something on television that upset them, but there could be other factors at play. Is there something stressful going on your child’s life, like parents divorcing or even the birth of a sibling?

Is anything making your preschooler anxious? Perhaps a child is teasing them on the playground or they are worried about an upcoming doctor’s appointment. It could even be something relatively minor—did you pass a big barking dog on your daily walk, or did your child have to run away from a bumblebee while they were playing outside?

Stress can come in many forms for a child this age. Maybe you are starting toilet training or moving your little one from a crib to a bed. Did they start preschool recently? Are you in the process of moving? If your child is going through any of these major events, a nightmare is a very normal response as they try to sort through it in their head.

Try to Determine What's Upsetting Your Child

Evaluate your child's stress levels, particularly if nightmares are a recurring problem. During the day, while your child is calm, ask them what is going on. If there is a big event going on in their life, ask about it and try to talk it out.

If there is something that your child is truly afraid of, like spiders or dogs, do some research—take books out of the library on the subject or find a neighbor with a friendly dog that you can spend some time with. If your child is so fearful that they just won’t sleep, or isn’t getting enough sleep, give the pediatrician a call. There could be something bigger at play.

Whatever the cause, and you may never figure it out, preschoolers are at a prime age for having nightmares. Their imagination is starting to operate on full blast and their vocabulary is developed enough that they are able to describe their dreams. Often, preschoolers remember their bad dream even after a few days and still get upset over it.

How to Soothe a Child After a Nightmare

Trying to comfort your preschooler after they’ve had a nightmare isn’t the easiest of tasks. It’s the middle of the night and they’re agitated, scared, and unlikely to want to return to sleep.

If you can see that your child is having a nightmare, wake them, For the most part, it causes the nightmare to end immediately, although it may take your child a few seconds to realize what is going on. If they want to talk about it, let them, but remember kids this age still don’t quite understand the difference between fantasy and reality. It may be too upsetting for your child to discuss their dream.

Above all else, be a comforting presence and use gentle cues to soothe your child, like rubbing their back or stroking their hair. If your child is very upset, try picking them up, walking out of the room and getting them a cup of water or warm milk.

Try not to bring your child into your own bed. That’s a habit that is very difficult to break, plus they may decide that there is something in their room that they need to be afraid of.

If your child’s dream was the stuff of make-believe, like monsters or ghosts, and now they are scared to stay in their own room, try showing them that there are no monsters in the closet or under the bed. But don’t make a big deal over it. Tuck them back in, leave a nightlight on, and return to your own room.

How to Handle Recurring Nightmares

For those children who have bad dreams often, getting them to go to bed at night can be difficult. Try these steps to soothe their fears and help them get a restful night’s sleep.

  • Set a routine: Children this age are most comforted by routine. Each night before bedtime, follow the same schedule. Include steps that are most likely to get your child into sleep mode, such as a warm bath, reading a bedtime story, or playing a quiet board game. Let your child pick some of the elements so they feel like they are part of the process.
  • Tell your own tales: Let your preschooler know that you understand what they are going through. Although children this age do have trouble separating fantasy from reality, explain that nightmares are only bad dreams and aren't real. Books such as The Mouse Who Braved Bedtime by Louis Baum and Sue Hellard and What a Bad Dream by Mercer Mayer give good perspectives of nightmares and how they happen to everyone.
  • Encourage good thoughts: Before your child goes to sleep, ask them what they would like to dream about. Obviously, you can't affect what happens once your child falls asleep, but going into bedtime with a positive frame of mind will help your child relax. Go over fun events of the day or upcoming things your child is looking forward to.
  • Let there be light: For a young child, staying alone in their room in the dark isn’t necessarily the most inviting of scenarios. Try turning on a nightlight. You can even give your child a small flashlight to stick under their pillow for comfort. Let them know it isn't a toy. It's just there to help them feel better.
  • Add a positive element: Many parents swear by “monster spray” (or some variation thereof): scented water in a spray bottle that they can spritz around the room at bedtime to rid the area of any potential frightening creatures. The problem is, this practice can put negative thoughts in your child’s head. Try changing the name to “magic fairy spray” or “knight spray”—something with a positive connotation that will help your child focus on the good things that happen in their room.
  • Hang a dreamcatcher: Native Americans believe dreamcatchers, handmade from a willow hoop threaded with sinew and hung above a bed, can protect sleeping children from nightmares. Have your child make her own with pipe cleaners and string or construction paper.
  • Turn on some tunes: When it’s time for your child to go to or return to sleep, turn on some soothing music at a low volume. The music will give them something to focus on rather than their own thoughts.
  • Introduce a sleeping partner: Chances are your child cuddles with a favorite doll or stuffed animal every night. Bring home a new friend—one whose job it is to keep your child safe while they sleep. Whether it is a brave lion or a sweet teddy bear, choose whatever you think will appeal to your child.

What Is a Night Terror?

More upsetting for parents than for the children that have them, night terrors or sleep terrors are a type of sleep disorder that causes a person to wake up in a terrified state, often described as being caught between being asleep and awake.

Part of a class of sleep disorders called parasomnias, night terrors tend to occur during the first third of the night (usually an hour or two into sleep). Most common in children ages 2 to 6, they are harmless to the child that has them but very frightening for the parent who witnesses them.

Children who have night terrors are nearly impossible to wake up. They may scream, act fearful, sweat, have an increased heart rate, breathe fast, and thrash around. They will also recoil from being touched. Although it’s hard to believe, these children aren’t dreaming, despite their vivid protests and agitated state. And although their eyes are open, they are not awake, nor are they responding to you or the environment.

After a night terror, the child usually goes right back to sleep and will not remember what happened when they awake in the morning. Unfortunately, sleep experts can’t tell us if a child who experiences a night terror is under distress during the episode because they can’t remember it the next day.

If night terrors persist, call your pediatrician. You may need to consult an expert in child sleep disorders.

How to Handle a Night Terror

Unlike that child who has a nightmare who can be easily calmed down, a child who has a night terror is nearly impossible to wake up. In fact, it’s best to not even try, as the child may get more upset. Just stay by your child’s side and make sure they are safe while the night terror is happening. A flailing child can get hurt.

Night terrors can’t be prevented, but if your child has them often, you can take some steps to make sure they are safe. Children who sleep in cribs won’t fall out, although be careful to watch that they don’t bang their head. If your child is in a bed, consider placing pillows on the floor and putting up a bed rail. If your child’s room is near stairs, put up a gate.

If you won't be home while your child is asleep, make sure to alert the child's caregiver to the possibility of night terrors, and tell them how to respond.

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