When I was about three years old, I can distinctly remember an extremely vivid nightmare I would have night after night: a witch (with the black pointy hat and all) would sit on the power lines above our house and cut out all the power to the neighborhood over and over and SHE ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED ME. Once bedtime was coming, I would cry and tell my parents that I didn't want to go to sleep the next night in fear that "the witch" would come back into my dreams. Although experts can't quite agree on when children actually begin dreaming, this is the earliest I can remember having nightmares.
This is a legit fear, and if your child has disturbed sleep due to nightmares (these most likely occur during the AM hours vs. night terrors which occur within a few hours after falling asleep) then read on for my top tips on fighting off these very REAL feelings and everything that goes "bump" in the night.
Night terrors vs Nightmares in Toddlers: What’s the Difference?
Nightmares usually happen in the later part of the night, often after midnight. Usually a cry will cry, be able to tell you exactly what they were dreaming about, and have the ability to calm down within a few minutes.
Night terrors usually happen in the early part of the night, often about 1 to 2 hours after the child has gone to sleep. It seems that a child almost wakes up, but does not completely wake (a 'partial wakening'). After a nightmare, children fully wake up and cry until you come to them.
One of the biggest differences between nightmares and night terrors is the awareness on the part of the child. With nightmares, children can often recall the experience in vivid detail. With night terrors, they usually have no recollection of the event at all the next morning.
What steps can you take to reduce night terrors or nightmares with your toddler?
Limit scary movies, television, and social media (like YouTube): Not just before bed, but all together. My husband seems to always forget that our son isn't even 4 years old yet when he suggests we watch The Goonies or go on a haunted Halloween trial in October. Read the age warnings- the content really does resonate at any age. I stopped watching horror movies a few years back myself and I SWEAR I don't have as many bad dreams anymore.
If your child is calmed before naps or bedtime by watching a short show or cartoon, be sure to pick up a pair of TrueDark blue light reducing glasses, best for children ages 3-7 years old. These glasses reduce “junk light” that sends signals to the brain that it’s still daytime and time to play, which is the opposite effect we wish to have when it’s time for our kids to get in bed. The overall calming effect that these glasses give the body can reduce night terrors and nightmares in toddler aged children.
Make sure your baby or toddler is on an age-appropriate schedule. Nightmares can sometimes be caused by skipped naps (3 & under), going to bed too late, and being overtired. Older toddlers can rally, meaning they mask signs of fatigue quite well, leading some adults to believe they should be, or can stay up later than the recommended 13-14 hours after waking for the day (w/o a nap). If you're not sure about whether or not you need a schedule, or how to even start one, visit our post here on schedules or drop us a line to schedule a Toddler Sleep training session together.
Read to baby/toddler at bedtime. We found these super creative (and custom!) books by ISEEME that allow you to personalize your books with your child's name throughout it, and it makes bedtime something my own children actually look forward to. You want bedtime to be an activity your toddler looks forward to, not something they will fear.
Install a nightlight.. Make sure before you turn on the nightlight and leave, the child has a chance to look around the room with you for any "questionable" shadows that may look scarier in the dark. My son is the master of this, yelling for us soon after we close his door about "something scary" in the corner that always ends up being his underwear or a missing sock (insert eye roll emoji).
Check on them while they fall asleep. If your baby is really scared before going to bed after a scary nightmare, tell them that you'll leave the door cracked, and check back on them every 10 minutes (and stick to your promise!)
Empower your child when they wake up in the middle of night, instead of calling out for you first. This is a big one- don't go turning on the light and looking for the monster that your toddler claims is under the bed waking him up at night. Don't give him "monster spray" (water in a water bottle) like some people suggest; this just further promotes the idea of an actual monster existing. Instead, I like to give the child a flashlight to shine on a shadow if they wake up from a deep sleep and see a dark shadow. I like to give a child an object that they can keep under their pillow that keeps bad dreams away. If you don't act like it doesn't exist, sometimes it will cease to exist.
If all else fails, keep your response temporary. I'm a modern Mom, so let's be realistic for a minute. Whatever happened to my Toddler self when I went upstairs to my parent's room after having a nightmare? My Mom would make me a bed on their floor at the foot of the bed with some extra blankets, and then the following night it'd be business as usual and back to my bed. It felt good to know that my Mom understood my fears of the dark and I felt safe falling asleep while knowing she was close by. With that said, on an ordinary night, my parents would never let me fall asleep in their room at bedtime for any reason, and I usually never had bad dreams back-to-back, therefore I didn't come to expect it. Babies and toddlers form sleep habits in 2-3 days, and as long as you aren't falling back on a recent sleep crutch that you just broke (i.e. sleeping in their bed next to them while they fall asleep), then it's perfectly fine to bend the rules just once if your child is truly terrified at the thought of falling back asleep alone. Sit in their room, assure them that everything is ok, and tell them you'll sit in the room/outside the door/watch the monitor until they fall asleep. Make a cot on your floor and allow an older child to sleep in your room JUST ONCE and then quickly clean it up/put it away the next day so another night isn't encouraged. Discuss the night fears your child may have during the day, and encourage them to talk & express their bad dreams and why those dreams are unlikely to occur (if they are older enough). A new change in a young child's life can often trigger fears or nightmares, such as a recent move or new school, so consider anything big that's happening in their lives and chat about it.