My preschooler has nightmares and night time tantrums

Parent Question:
Our son has just turned four and has, over the last six weeks, stopped using his dummy and moved into his own bed, instead of the cot. However, in the last two weeks he was sick with flu and was having nightmares and so we have been letting him into the bed with us. This has now escalated to a scenario where he is now having these nightmares daily and demanding to come into our bed. If we try to suggest he goes back to his own bed, he can have a tantrum in the middle of the night that can last up to half an hour. And it can occur again the same night a short while later. Any tips on what we can do?

The journey to helping your child sleep independently through the night can have many ups and downs. Frequently, you go through periods of progress such as helping them move into their own bed only to experience a setback such as nightmares or sickness, both of which can increase night waking and the need for parental comfort. Nightmares are common in young children and peak between the ages of three and six. Up to 50 per cent of children will experience nightmares between these ages, and about 10 per cent might go through a period of frequent nightmares and night waking. You are having the additional problem of escalating tantrums in the middle of the night, which must be very stressful and exhausting to deal with.

How to respond in the middle of the night
When your child awakes, it is most important to find a way of comforting and reassuring him so that he (and you) can go back to sleep. Taking a stand in the middle of the night about where he sleeps may not be the priority, especially if this is causing a tantrum. When your son wakes he is probably fearful because of the nightmare and needs your comfort and reassurance, which he seeks by coming into your bed. If you get into a battle about this, he is likely to feel more anxious and get more desperate. This will make it harder for him to get back to sleep and more likely to be unsettled at another point in the night.

So it is okay to take a step back in training him to be an independent sleeper and to temporarily allow him back into your bed for comfort, especially if this de-escalates his tantrum and quickens his comfort. In the middle of the night, the goal is to do whatever you can to shorten his distress and to encourage him back to sleep. Once he is settled and the nightmares diminish, you can slowly build back his habit of sleeping by himself by taking steps such as:

  • Taking him back to his own bed later in the night once he is relaxed or fully back to sleep.
  • When he wakes you can try cuddling and reassuring him in his own room, rather than taking him into your bed.
  • Allowing him to lie in a small bed in your room in the middle of night, if that is less disruptive for you all.

Preventing problems
Sometimes nightmares have no particular cause and are just how preschool children mentally process their daytime experiences. Sometimes nightmares are caused by specific stresses and worries they might have. Your child having a recent flu probably precipitated his recent nightmares. Also, nightmares can become habitual; if a child has a daily nightmare, he can fear it happening each night, which in turn can disrupt his sleep. You can reduce the risk of nightmares by:

  • Talking about the nightmares the next day. Help your child express what happened in the nightmare and how they felt. It is best to do this in an upbeat, positive way, and you can praise your child for having a great imagination. In the conversation you can even make a game of what happened and to discuss how your child can change the ending. The goal is to take fear out of the nightmares and help the child be less stressed about having one the next night.
  • Creating a relaxing bedtime routine. Having a relaxing routine that starts early and ends with an enjoyable bedtime story and nice chat before sleep can set the tone for a good night’s sleep.
  • Avoiding scary movies or stories during the day that can trigger nightmares as well as caffeine or sugary drinks near bedtime that can disrupt sleep.

You can also try some creative and playful strategies with your child to give him some power over his dreams. For example, you might:

  • Make a ‘dream catcher’ for his bedroom that wards off bad dreams and only allows nice ones to enter.
  • Give him a special teddy to sleep with him who will support him in all his dreams.
  • Read some nice children’s books with him about managing nightmares or about having lovely dreams and adventures such as “you choose your dreams”.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in May 2024. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is