Understand what nightmares are

Nightmares are scary dreams that wake the child up from sleep. They seem very real to them, and it is usually difficult for children to separate a nightmare from reality. Children may wake up crying or feeling afraid and may have trouble falling back to sleep. Nightmares generally occur in the second half of the night when dreaming is most intense. This feature distinguishes nightmares from night terrors which occur in the first half of the night.

Possible causes of nightmares

The exact reason for nightmares is unknown. They generally occur in children between the ages of 3 and 6 years. Nightmares may be linked with things that have happened during the day, especially things which are worrying, such as 1st day of school, getting lost, being bullied, being barked at by a dog or loss of a relative.

Some of the possible causes include-

  • The ordinary stresses and strains of growing up
  • A traumatic event, such as an accident or surgery
  • Fever
  • Insufficient sleep
  • An active imagination

What parents can do

  • Go to your child as quickly as possible.
  • Cuddle and reassure your child. Talk calmly and gently.
  • Appreciate that your child's feelings are genuine.
  • Be prepared to stay with them until they have calmed down.
  • Your child may want to talk to you about their nightmare. Encourage them to come up with alternate endings for the nightmare that are happy or funny.
  • If your child is particularly frightened, you may need to soothe them with a favourite (but relaxing) activity, such as singing a lullaby.
  • Encourage them to go back to sleep.
  • Allow keeping a light on if it makes them feel better.
  • Reassure the child that the home is safe and that you are there for security.

Tips for dealing with nightmares

There are several ways to reduce your child's likelihood of nightmares-

  • Ensure adequate sleep and maintain a regular bedtime schedule.
  • Keep the bedtime routine 'light,' and fun-filled. In the 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, don't expose your child to scary movies, TV shows, frightening bedtime stories or scary music that may upset the child.
  • Discuss the nightmare during the day. If they are frequently occurring, there might be a theme to the nightmares. Try to determine what it is. Identify the stressors in your child's life and talk about it and work with your child to reduce them.
  • Avoid dismissing the fear of saying that the child is silly.


  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Nigh...
  2. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14297-nightmares-in-children
  3. Nightmares, 2001, Parenting and Child Health, Child and Youth Health, State Government of South Australia, Adelaide. http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=141&id=...