Toddler Nightmares: Why Do They Happen and What You Can Do

Table of Contents

Toddler Nightmares

Table of Contents

Nothing is more heartrending than hearing shrieks in the middle of the night from your toddler’s bedroom. When you rush in and your child reaches out for you, crying can be a heartbreaking sight. Toddlers begin to have nightmares around the age of two. These night terrors peak by the age of 3 and 6.

Let us tell you that nightmares in toddlers are quite common and it’s just their way of processing emotions and feelings. Eventually, they will grow out of it. In this blog about toddler nightmares, we have brought to you everything about why these errors happen, what you can do, and what the possible triggers could be. Read on to learn more about toddler nightmares!

What are Toddler Nightmares?

Toddler having nightmares are bad, realistic, and unpleasant dreams that wake up your little ones from their sleep. When your kid has had a nightmare, they will remember it and might want to share it if they are verbal. They may also have a hard time falling back asleep after the nightmare.

These nightmares can happen at any time of the night but usually during the REM cycle of sleep. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is the cycle of sleep that occurs 90 minutes after falling asleep. The brain is quite active during this cycle, stimulating the learning areas of the brain. Babies tend to spend 50% of their sleep in the REM stage.

Night Terrors vs Nightmares: What is The Difference?

A toddler having a nightmare might seem a little restless. It is not until they are fully awake does the one and screaming set in. When you come to their rescue, your child will be crying and wanting to cling to you desperately because they still remember the dream and if they are verbal, they will want to discuss it with you for reassurance.

Night terrors, on the other hand, do not have visual imagery like nightmares and dreams have. During a night terror in a child, their eyes might be wide open and they will scream and thrash around. You might even see them panting and even sleepwalking even though they are still sound asleep. They might shout for you but cannot sense your presence even if you are talking or trying to comfort them. Unlike a nightmare, they will not remember the terrors they had when they woke up.

What Causes Nightmares?

Toddlers are at an age where they have a lot to process every day. Their memory is improving which means they remember sounds and/or images from their busy days at night, quite vividly. Babyhood has long sleep cycles where babies spend more time in their light “sleep” stage. This leaves the door open for realistic nightmares. Toddlers also have a hard time separating reality from make-believe. Anything that happens, in a toddler’s reality, can cause anxiety and stress in them and eventually nightmares. It could be a scary-looking spider or just a not-so-friendly kid at school.

Any changes at that age could trigger nightmares too such as a new guardian, work schedule, a new teacher, and/or even a new sibling. Most of the time, working out their anxieties and fears is what nightmares are all about. Certain medications, fever, lack of sleep, or an erratic sleep schedule can also trigger nightmares.

What Can You Do About Nightmares?

Toddlers having nightmares will have a hard time going back to sleep. Start with rubbing or holding their back and give them reassurances because they still need those few hours of sleep. Explain that “it was just a dream” in a way a toddler would understand. Say things like “you were only pretending to sleep” and double-check in spooky-looking closets or under the bed. Talk about any happy memory like a vacation, for instance. Do not minimize your kid’s fears, i.e., avoid saying things like, “Oh, that’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Encourage your little ones to go back to sleep in their room so they learn that it is a safe space. Try to avoid bringing your toddler into your bed at night every time they have a nightmare. Once your kid gets a bit older, you can sit them down calmly and talk to them about their nightmares. But only do so, when you sense they are comfortable enough to discuss it. Talking things with your child helps them in developing their courage against make-believe nightmares. They also get to understand that dreams or nightmares are just like stories that won’t harm you. Keep the nighttime talk short and you can have a full-blown conversation in the morning.

Stick to a strict but calm nighttime routine to ease your toddler’s anxiety and stress as these are the culprits that cause nightmares in the first place. Skip potentially upsetting or scary stories or books and bring on a cheerful night light. You could also keep their bedroom door ajar to assure them that you are just a few steps away. Do not let them eat heavy meals or snacks for at least 2 hours before going to bed. Food has been shown to rev up metabolism that activates the brain leading to more nightmares.

Should You Call a Doctor For Toddler Nightmares?

If your toddler seems to have frequent nightmares, keep track of their sleep for a week or two by noting down the time of their sleep, how long they slept, how often they wake up, and how long they stay awake. If they need any comforting objects like a nightlight or a cuddle toy to fall asleep, make note of that too. If you find any potential triggers (for instance, changes in your house) for their nightmares, note them down so you remember to undo the change. This little sleep diary will help your pediatrician as well as you to work out the bottom of what’s going on.

Despite your best efforts of tracking, recording, or easing your toddler’s nightmares if they continue to happen, talk to your pediatrician. Notice if your kid is experiencing nightmare-related anxiety during the day or any other abnormal concerns about their sleep and report them to their doctor. They may look into potential causes and/or recommend a therapist or a sleep specialist.

The Bottom Line: Toddler Nightmares and What You Can Do About Them

Remember that nightmares are quite common in toddlers aged around 3 to 6. It’s the age of curiosity and they tend to process a lot of information that might trigger their stress levels. Increased levels of anxiety and/or stress make them have nightmares. While there are a lot of ways to deal with it, offering some calm and quiet reassurance with a soothing back rub will solve the issue. Making them understand that dreams or nightmares can never harm them will help your little one to fall back asleep.

Toddler Nightmares FAQs

1. Is it normal for a 2-year-old to have nightmares?

Once in a while, your kids will have a nightmare but 2 to 4-year-old toddlers are particularly prone to them. Their age especially tends to develop normal fears, blossoming imagination, and the ability to describe a bad dream.

2. What causes nightmares in toddlers?

Toddlers experience nightmares when they are stressed or overtired. Children experiencing traumatic events might have frequent nightmares. Certain medications also cause disturbing dreams or nightmares in toddlers.

3. How can you help your toddler experiencing nightmares?

Seeing your toddler have nightmares can be upsetting but there are certain things you can do to help them:
  • Reassure your child with your calming presence
  • Label what has happened in their dreams
  • Light up their mood by offering to read, or listening to music, or other such activities
  • Help them go back to sleep so do activities that make them sleepy
  • Be a good listener when they describe their bad dream to you
  • 4. Does milk cause nightmares in toddlers?

    In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2015, the diet a toddler has before going to bed has been seen to affect their sleep. Most of the bizarre and/or disturbing dreams in toddlers might be caused by the ingestion of dairy products such as cheese, ice cream, and even milk. Spicy food is also on the list of the culprits.

    5. Can sugar before bed cause nightmares?

    The questionnaire that confirmed dairy products have a hand in causing nightmares also showed that sugary treats have a link to nightmares as they tend to trigger more brain waves while you sleep. An active brain is more susceptible to nightmares.

    6. What kind of foods cause nightmares?

    Foods that are high in sugar such as chocolate, cake, and biscuits have been linked to nightmares. A study published in the Frontiers in Psychology tested 396 students to confirm the link between food and dreams. Right next to sugary food comes spicy food and dairy products.

    7. Which is worse, nightmares or night terrors?

    During night terrors, the toddler will seem terrified and restless. Although nightmares are upsetting, it provokes less fear in toddler or just anyone having them. During a nightmare, it is possible that their limbs are paralyzed while movement is not restricted in the case of a night terror. Night terrors often happen during sleepwalking.

    8. Do bananas cause nightmares?

    Bananas contain melatonin, a hormone in the human body that regulates day or nighttime sleep cycles. This has been attributed to vivid nightmares or dreams. However, it is only likely to happen to people whose body is already producing enough melation.

    9. Can too much TV cause nightmares?

    A new study published in Sleep Medicine showed that preschoolers who slept with a TV in their room had more nightmares than the ones who didn’t. They also woke up feeling extra tired and even sleep-talked. The study used the Sleep Disturbance Scale for Children (SDSC) survey to determine their results.

    10. What foods give you good dreams?

    For a good dreamy sleep at night, have foods that contain vitamin B6. vitamin B6 takes the amino acid, tryptophan and converts it into serotonin which causes vivid dreams. Here are some food items with vitamin B6:
  • Spinach
  • Carrots
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Liver
  • Fish
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
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