5+ Tips on how to help your child cope with nightmares

A child sleeping peacefully without the disturbance of nightmares

How to help your child to cope with nightmares

In this blog, we explore the fundamentals around how to support your child with nightmares, and what you can do to encourage a good night's sleep.

Your child will no doubt pick up information that may feel scary, or make them feel uneasy. Overhearing conversations and radio news bulletins or seeing online and TV news feeds, can sometimes cause our children worry.

They may also be aware of how anxiety provoking and overwhelming situations may be for you and worrying about grandparents or other family members. For many children these worries may surface during the night as frightening nightmares. We share our top tips to help your child cope with nightmares and worries.

What is a nightmare?

Nightmares occur in Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) or ‘dreaming’ sleep. They usually happen in the second half of the night towards the morning, when REM sleep becomes more frequent.

Nightmares in children can be very common between the ages of 6 and 10 years, but both younger and older children also experience nightmares. About a quarter of children have at least one nightmare a week. 

As most of us will remember, common themes are being chased by a monster or animal, being lost or being stuck somewhere you can’t escape from.

While the subjects are extreme and frightening at the time, nightmares in children are perfectly normal reactions to the stresses and strains of growing up and are often caused by a healthy development of the imagination.

They can also be triggered during particularly stressful times in a young person’s life and involve worries about family members. In older children they are often associated with perceived imminent danger or harm.

How do I help my child with nightmares?

If your child is having a nightmare give them comfort and reassurance

When children awaken from a nightmare, its images are still fresh and can seem real. It’s natural for them to feel afraid and upset and to call out to a parent for comfort. 

The best thing to do is to comfort and reassure your child, letting them know they are safe and secure. Show that you understand that your child feels afraid and it’s OK.

Remind your child that everyone dreams and sometimes the dreams are scary, upsetting, and can seem very real, so it’s natural to feel scared by them. Once they are calm and happy, they will usually go back to sleep.

Reassure your child that you’re there. Your calm presence helps your child feel safe and protected after waking up feeling afraid. Knowing you’ll be there will strengthen your child’s sense of security.

Label what’s happened. Let your child know that it was a nightmare and now it’s over. You might say something like, “You had a bad dream, but now you’re awake and everything is OK.” Reassure your child that the scary stuff in the nightmare didn’t happen in the real world.

It is important to remember that under the age of four to five, children cannot tell the difference between a dream and reality, so it is particularly important to give them reassuring cuddles and comfort, rather than explaining the nightmare away at this time.

If your child has recurrent nightmares about the same thing, try talking through this the next day and help them think up a happy ending. This can help to defuse the power of the nightmare and the hold its repetition may have on your child.

If there is a reoccurring monster theme, make the monster into a character of fun. During the day draw silly monster pictures with your child and make up silly monster songs: you could also set up a dream catcher in their bedroom to catch bad dreams.

Help your child go back to sleep 

Offering something comforting might help change the mood. Try any of these to aid the transition back to sleep: a favourite stuffed animal to hold, a blanket, pillow, nightlight, dreamcatcher, or soft music. Or discuss some pleasant dreams your child would like to have. And maybe seal it by giving your child a kiss to hold — in the palm of his or her hand — as you tiptoe out of the room.

Do your magic. With pre-schoolers and young school-age kids who have vivid imaginations, the magical powers of your love and protection can work wonders.

You might be able to make the pretend monsters disappear with a dose of pretend monster spray. Go ahead and check the closet and under the bed, reassuring your child that all’s clear.

Identify the cause of your child’s nightmare

Talk to your child to help identify what might be the cause of their nightmare. It is best to do this during the day well away from bedtime. Be a good listener.

No need to talk more than briefly about the nightmare in the wee hours — just help your child feel calm, safe, and protected, and ready to go back to sleep. Discussing your child’s worries just as they are going to bed could trigger worries or scary thoughts and prevent them going to sleep. 

Instead have 10 to 15 minutes of undisturbed 1 to 1 time with your child earlier in the day, that you set aside specially to discuss their concerns. In the morning, your child may want to tell you all about last night’s scary dream. By talking about it — maybe even drawing the dream or writing about it — in the daylight, many scary images lose their power. Your child might enjoy thinking up a new (more satisfying) ending to the scary dream.

For most children, nightmares happen only now and then, are not cause for concern, and simply require a parent’s comfort and reassurance.

Talk to your doctor if nightmares often prevent your child from getting enough sleep or if they happen along with other emotional or behavioural troubles.

After you’ve said goodnight consider using a relaxation and breathing technique or a simple hand or foot massage to help relax your child at bedtime.

A parent helping their child with nightmares

Our top tips for encouraging sweet dreams 

Parents can’t prevent nightmares but can help kids get a good night’s sleep — and that encourages sweet dreams.

To help them relax when it’s time to sleep, be sure that children:

1) Have a regular bedtime and wake-up timeChildren who don’t have enough sleep are more likely to have nightmares. Helping your child to have more sleep, could reduce the frequency of their nightmares.

2) Have a sleep routine that helps them slow down and feel safe and secure as they drift off to sleep. This might include a bath, a snuggle from you, reading, or some quiet talk about the pleasant events of the day.

3) Have a bed that’s a cosy, peaceful place to quiet down. A favourite toy, stuffed animal, night-light, or dream catcher can help. Having a security object in bed overnight such as a special cuddly toy can help your child feel more relaxed and happier at bedtime and throughout the night.

4) If your child gets anxious about you leaving at bedtime, explain that you will regularly check in on them. Return after only 2 to 5 minutes and from the doorway, briefly reassure your child.  Keep repeating this until they go to sleep or is happy for you leave.

5) Avoid scary movies, TV shows, and stories before bed — especially if they’ve triggered nightmares before. Vet all the books, TV programmes and media your child could be watching or over hearing. Many traditional bedtime stories feature wolves, witches and bears and your child may well be quietly listening to things that you are not aware of.

6) Know that nightmares aren’t real, that they’re just dreams and can’t hurt them.

7) Fears of the dark is widespread problem among young children and starts when their imagination kicks in. Children do eventually grow out of this fear, but in the meantime, it can make them reluctant to go to bed and can wake them at night. Most children are reassured by the presence of a night light in their bedroom. Set up a dim amber or orange glow light in your child’s bedroom, this will not stop them sleeping but will help the room feel less scary.

A nightlight or a hall light can help kids feel safe in a darkened room as they get ready to go back to sleep. A bedside flashlight can be a good nightmare-chaser.

Go into your child’s bedroom when it’s dark and with a child’s eye look around the bedroom to see if there is anything in the room that could look scary at night. A favourite cuddly toy in the day can turn into a scary monster in the dark.

Seek professional help

If your child is having regular severe nightmares you may need to discuss this with your GP.

Sign up to one our Parenting in difficult times course for further support. 

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