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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.