“I had a bad dream!”
These words, often delivered between sobs, can become the bane of a parent’s nighttime existence. You and your child are both losing sleep, and that doesn’t make the next day any easier. Bad dreams are a normal part of development, but they can be extremely distressing for kids and their parents. In a few cases, they can even be indicators of significant problems. What can parents do to help their kids to cope?
Valerie Simard and her colleagues at the Centre d’étude du sommeil (Sleep Study Centre) in Montréal investigated risk and protective factors for chronic nightmares in preschool kids; their study can be found in a 2008 issue of the journal Sleep. The good news about their work is that very few of the children in their study had frequent nightmares. However, for those that did, it was a chronic condition that persisted for years, and other studies have shown that frequent nightmares may be far more common for children between the ages of 6 and 10.
The researchers found that kids who had difficult temperaments at the age of 5 months were more likely to have frequent nightmares at the age of 2.5 years. Children with difficult temperaments tend to be more reactive to stress and frustration, which might be a contributing factor to bad dreams; this temperament can also be stressful for parents, contributing to a reduction in responsive parenting that might also have an impact on their kids stress level.
If frequent bad dreams are a stable phenomenon that can be predicted from infant personality traits, what can parents do? Luckily, Simard and her colleagues examined parenting practices to see what might be helpful. Here are a couple of things that parents did for their 2.5 year-olds that reduced nightmare frequency when it was measured years later:
1. Taking the child out of bed to provide comfort.
- Hugging or rocking your preschool child after a bad dream is OK.
- Kids Health recommends that parents label the source of the child’s fear, telling them, “You had a bad dream, but it’s over now.”
- Listening to the child’s description of the dream and the feelings it evoked is also appropriate.
- It’s not a bad idea for parents to talk to their kids about the tricks that they use to feel better when they’re afraid.
2. Allowing the child to sleep in the parents’ bed.
- Co-sleeping was helpful for the children in this study, which should come as no surprise to those who believe in “attachment parenting.”
- Arguments against co-sleeping tend to revolve around the notion that the child won’t develop self-soothing skills; although this may be true for older kids, the children in Simard’s study were 6 and under.
- Parents who comforted their kids but left them in their bed, probably to help them develop coping skills, had kids who were at greater risk for chronic nightmares at age 6.
A combination of providing comfort, building skills, and co-sleeping might provide an optimal variety of support for pre-schoolers with chronic nightmares. Although Simard and her fellow researchers didn’t investigate preventative strategies, here are a few that might be helpful:
- Establish a consistent bedtime routine. Change is stressful for many kids, and a predictable routine can be comforting. Going to bed at the same time every night can also make it easier to fall asleep.
- Look for patterns. At my house, certain bedtime snacks were linked to bad dreams for one of my boys. Particular television shows might also increase anxiety and contribute to a nightmare. It might help to keep a journal of bedtime routines to see if there is a link between something that happens before bed and a nightmare.
- Get help! If your child is bothered by frequent bad dreams, it might indicate that he or she is experiencing some kind of difficulty during the day; some studies have linked chronic nightmares to daytime anxiety symptoms. Check with your family doctor or talk to a therapist if you’re worried that this may be the case, or if other strategies don’t help!
You can find the Sleep study here.
Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.