If sleep is scary for your little one, chances are neither of you are getting enough of it.  Nightmares and night terrors can be frightening for both the child experiencing the bad dream and the loving parents who find themselves unsure of how to guide their child back to sleep.   How can you help your little one experience the peaceful, restorative sleep that he needs?  What should parents do if they fear their little one’s dreams are not so sweet?


First, you should have some understanding about the difference between a nightmare and a night terror.  When a child is having a nightmare he will respond when his parents offer him comfort and reassurance.  An older child who has had a nightmare will be able to recall or retell the dream the next day.

When a child is having a night terror he will neither respond when parents offer support nor will he remember the episode the next day. If your little one is having a night terror he is caught between two stages of sleep.  If you suspect a night terror is occurring, you are best not to wake your child.  Although it is difficult, the best thing parents can do is allow their child to transition into the next stage of sleep without interfering.  It’s also best to avoid mentioning it the next day as this may cause your little one to be fearful of sleep.

Parents should also be aware that some children are more prone to experiencing nightmares and night terrors than others.  While we can’t prevent our children from experiencing bad dreams, we can take some steps to reduce their frequency.  Here are some tips to encourage your child’s dreams to be sweet:

  1. If you feel that your child is prone to bad dreams you may need to be more protective of his sleep. This is because sleep deprived children are more likely to experience nightmares and night terrors than those who are well rested.
  2. Avoid or reduce screen time, especially after 6 pm. Screen time over stimulates the central nervous system and promotes nightmares and night terrors in children.
  3. Evaluate the content of your child’s TV shows and stories. Eliminate anything that might promote fear in your child.
  4. If your child is afraid of the dark put a night-light in his room.
  5. Think about diet. Some children are sensitive to red food dye which can affect their sleep.
  6. Keep your bedtime and naptime routines light and fun while avoiding discussion of bad dreams. If your child wants to discuss his bad dreams, reassure him that he will be okay and encourage him to cuddle his lovey if he is frightened in the night.
  7. If your child wakes in the night, give him a chance to settle before you respond. If he doesn’t, go in and offer reassurance and encourage him to go back to sleep. Remember that he has this ability because it’s a skill you have taught him.

And as always, SleepWell Baby is here to help if you need more support.  We know how sweet sleep can be and hope that you and your little ones know it too.


Alysa Dobson is a Certified Child Sleep Consultant with SleepWell Baby.  She works with families to help them get the sleep they need.  Alysa offers support to parents with children ages 4 months- 8 years old through both in home and remote consultations.  She can be contacted at alysa@sleepwellbaby.ca.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net




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