My six-year-old daughter often has nightmares in the middle of the night, sometimes twice a week. She can get very upset and then comes into our bed for comfort. What is the best way to help her? Is there anything causing them, and should we continue to let her come into the bed with us or try to help her cope alone?
Frightening dreams and nightmares are very common in young children from about three to eight years of age, and many children have weekly nightmares.
While nightmares can happen more frequently when a child is stressed about something, or after a worrying event, in most cases there is no specific cause. Generally, nightmares are thought to be the result of the everyday worries and stresses associated with the trials and tribulations of growing up.
If your daughter wakes up during a nightmare, your important role as a parent is to be reassuring and supportive. Listen to what happened in the dream if she needs to tell you, before reassuring her that it was only a dream and that everything is okay.
Stay with her until she is relaxed enough to return to sleep and you might find it helpful to repeat gently a relaxing mantra: “Everything is fine, go back to sleep now.”
Whether or not you let her come into your bed is your personal judgment. It is perfectly okay to reassure her as you tuck her into her own bed and help her settle back to sleep, and this may help her learn to cope by herself in the long term.
You can also help her cope with recurring bad dreams by talking about them in the morning. Ask your daughter to tell you what exactly happens in the dream.
You can also help her to imagine strategies she might use if it recurs. For example, if she is being chased by a monster, maybe she can gain a special power to fly away or invent a special wand to turn the monster into a frog.
Help your daughter think of other, happier endings for the dreams. Expressing what happens in the dreams during the cold light of day with some humour and creative imagination can remove a lot of the fear.
Finally, protect your daughter from unnecessary triggers for the dreams during the day. Take time to ensure there is nothing particularly worrying or stressing her at home or in school.
Make sure she is not reading scary books or watching frightening television shows. Remember, young children can worry about upsetting news stories and may need to be protected from over- exposure to them.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.