At What Age Do Babies or Toddlers Start to Experience Nightmares?
Your child's imagination typically begins to develop around the ages of 2 to 3, and it's during this phase that you might notice the initial emergence of fears related to shadows, darkness, or imaginary creatures. Nightmares and night wakings due to bad dreams are most common though between the ages of 3 and 5. During this period, children possess highly active imaginations and can start to articulate what they’ve dreamt. If your child is under the age of 2, night wakings are not typically the result of nightmares; and other factors are usually responsible for their sleep disturbances.
What causes toddler nightmares?
For toddlers, nightmares can be unsettling experiences. These vivid dreams often revolve around their daily experiences, faces they've encountered, objects they've seen, and their interactions with friends and family. While the exact cause of nightmares remains uncertain, it's understood that overtiredness and stress can increase the likelihood of these nighttime disruptions. This is particularly important because chronic sleep deprivation can leave toddlers more susceptible to nightmares, emphasizing the importance of addressing any sleep challenges they may face.
Nightmares are different to night terrors. Nightmares involve vivid dreams that can be remembered upon waking, while night terrors often lead to abrupt awakenings without recollection of the episode.
Tips to Help Reduce Nightmares and Bedtime Stalling Due to Fear
- Limit Screen Time: Children's exposure to screen content can have a significant impact on their bedtime experiences. Avoid content with sad or remotely scary themes, and be mindful of everything your child watches or overhears. While Disney films are often a fav for toddlers they almost always contain elements that might seem frightening to young children, so stick with G rated movies and shows and do a quick google search to check there’s no sad or scary themes in that particular show. Studies have shown a link with excessive screen time and behavioural issues in toddlers. So if you’re noticing behavioural issues throughout the day as well, consider a screen time ‘detox’ for our couple of weeks to help improve behaviour and development. You’ll be surprised at how much of a difference this can make!
- Nutrition: Diet plays a role in children's sleep quality. Low iron levels can be common in toddlers, especially if they consume excessive milk or dairy products, which can displace their appetite for solid foods. Including small portions of protein throughout the day can help maintain stable blood sugar levels, improve behavior, and keep them feeling full throughout the night. Adequate iron intake is crucial for healthy growth and brain development. Certain foods rich in tryptophan, such as bananas, chicken and turkey, can enhance sleep quality and help with sleep quality.
- Comfort: Ensure your child is dressed appropriately for the room temperature. Overheating can lead to night sweats, which may be associated with bad dreams. If your child frequently kicks off blankets in the night, they may actually be just waking up from feeling cold and then get anxious when they’re awake in the middle of the night. Do a lot of role play during the day to practice pulling up their blankets so that overnight it becomes almost a subconscious action. Or consider using a sleeping bag or sleep suit to keep them consistently warm throughout the night.
- Check Your Timings: It's important to note that most toddlers around the age of 3 no longer need daytime naps. Keeping a daytime nap much later than this can lead to nighttime awakenings or early morning wakes. Plus if your child is undertired at bedtime, they might employ tactics like claiming to be scared to stall bedtime knowing that these requests are met with a softer approach from parents. On the other hand though, if they've had a particularly active day and are clearly exhausted, it might be best to put them to bed a bit earlier to avoid entering a wired and overtired state. Striving for an appropriate bedtime tailored to your child's needs is key.
- Pre-Sleep Ritual: Creating a consistent bedtime routine can work wonders. This routine can include simple activities like a bath, brushing teeth, reading favorite books, and cuddling. Predictability is key, and keeping the last few activities consistent can provide security and set the stage for a restful night's sleep. Avoid giving in to requests for 'one more' of anything, as it can lead to anxiety about the routine's end. For older toddlers and young children, consider incorporating the Zenimal, a screen-free meditation device with captivating tracks designed to help them focus and calm their minds. It plays for 10 minutes before turning off automatically, helping to reduce those pre-bedtime jitters.
Helping Your Child Overcome Their Fear of Monsters at Bedtime
When your child expresses fear of monsters or other imaginary things at bedtime, it's important to address these concerns with care. In that moment, explain that monsters aren't real, that they’re only in books and on tv; and then redirect their attention to positive and tangible things, such as their favorite foods (ie. “monsters aren’t real, but do you know what is real? Watermelon, blueberries and icecream - what is your favourite ice cream flavour?”). Also avoid checking for monsters in cupboards or under the bed, as this can suggest that there is something to fear at other times and you don’t want them to need you to be checking all through the night again and again.
A popular trend is using ‘monster spray’ but again this is suggesting that if you don’t have this spray they’re potentially not safe. Instead you can use a scented spray and call it the “good thoughts” or “happy dreams” spray. Explain how this spray can help them to have happy thoughts and sweet dreams. Lavender scent works wonderfully for this as it is known to calm the mind and help with sleep.
Tackling your Toddler's Fear of Darkness with a Night Light
Keep in mind that if your child is under 2 years old it’s unlikely they have a fear of the dark as this is before their imaginations have truly started to develop. So for babies we always recommend having lights off over night.
But for an older toddler who has started to express a fear of the dark you can consider having a small red toned based light in their room for sleep times. Red is the best colour as it’s the only colour that doesn’t block the production of melatonin, a hormone that aids sleep. I love toddler clocks that can adjust from your phone as you can start with a brighter light at bedtime and gradually dim it as they fall asleep as a low light is less likely to disturb their sleep cycles.
During the day, engage in activities in dimly lit spaces to help your child become more comfortable with the idea of darkness. You can create torchlight puppet shows, or read books under torch light. Getting some glow in the dark toys can be fun as well. Also talk to your toddler about the dark in a positive way. Explain that the darkness is great for sleep, as it allows our bodies to produce melatonin, the "magic" hormone that helps everyone sleep better. Point out that the sun goes to bed every night to help us all sleep better.
What to Do When Your Toddler Wakes from a Nightmare
If your toddler wakes up from a nightmare, attend to them as quickly as possible and reassure them that they are safe. Let them share their dream without making light of it, even if it seems trivial to you. Don't engage in lengthy conversations though, as it might make them more alert and harder for them to return to sleep. Offer them a drink of water to help redirect them once they’ve finished, and tuck their blankets in snug again.
Once they're calm, aim to leave the room again to avoid introducing a new sleep habit. Toddlers quickly latch onto routines, so if you don't typically stay with them to fall asleep, it's better to leave when they're ready so they continue to feel confident in their ability to fall asleep without you needing to be always there. You can use a pop-out method, where you explain that you'll sit just by the door quietly for a couple of minutes to let them get comfortable again and then you’ll need to pop out to attend to "insert boring chore."
If you find yourself in need of assistance with your toddler's sleep, it's never too late to establish healthy sleep habits. Our team of certified infant and toddler sleep consultants work with families worldwide and provides support for children up to 5 years of age. Whether you're ready to get started with a one to one Sleep Program and get sleep on track in as little as 7-14 days, or just want to start with a free chat, we're here to help.
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