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Nightmares—how can I help my preschooler through them?
Q: What is the best way to deal with nightmares in a preschooler? My child wakes us in the middle of the night screaming that she can't find me or her brother. She doesn't seem to be really awake. She appears to be quite upset and it takes several minutes to calm her. Is this typical for this age?
A: It is difficult to pinpoint the age at which children begin to have nightmares (or dreams), as we have to wait until they have words to descote their experience. But by 4 years many children have them. Since she doesn’t seem to be fully awake, I would just pat and soothe her (or hold her for a few minutes) until she calms down and returns to sound sleep. Then the next morning, ask her if she can remember having a bad dream and waking up. If she doesn’t seem to know what a dream is, say something like, “You know, a dream is like a TV program that runs in your head while you are asleep. Sometimes it is scary. Do you remember yours?” If she can recall any content, show interest but don’t ridicule her fears. Then offer reassurance, “Things that happen in dreams aren’t real, and a lot of times they don’t make sense.” If you can think of one, tell one of your recent dreams.