How to Handle Your Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Nightmares and Night Terrors: Part One

Nightmares And Night Terrors

As a parent, you’ve probably had some experience with your baby or toddler waking in the middle of the night. And if you’ve read many of our Baby Sleep Site® blog articles or free guides, you’ve likely learned a lot about what can cause night waking: sleep associations, hunger, teething, illness, schedule problems, etc.

Here’s a night-waking cause that catches many parents of toddlers by surprise, however: nightmares and night terrors. Starting around 18 months, your toddler may start to wake at night not out of habit, or because she’s hungry or sick, but because she’s scared. And these nightmares and night terrors can continue well into the preschool and school years, too.

So, what causes nightmares and night terrors? When do they start? And what’s the difference between them? That’s the topic of an article series that we’re presenting over the next two weeks. This week, we’ll look specifically at nightmares and how to deal with them; next week, we’ll examine night terrors and examine how they’re different than nightmares.

Your Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Nightmares: When They Start and Why They Happen

As we adults know from experience, a nightmare is simply a scary dream. Often, nightmares start as normal, non-threatening dreams and then take a frightening turn.

No one knows for certain when nightmares begin — mainly because our babies aren’t articulate enough to tell us if they’ve had a bad dream. We do know, however, that dreams and nightmares occur during the active stage of sleep, known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Babies experience REM sleep just like we adults do (in fact, babies experience far more REM sleep than adults do!), so it’s possible that a baby – even a newborn – can experience dreams and nightmares.

It may be helpful to note that a person’s REM cycles get longer as the night progresses. A child’s first REM cycle is fairly short (10 minutes or so), but each subsequent REM cycle is longer, with the last being close to an hour long. For this reason, most people (children and adults alike) tend to have their dreams or nightmares in the second half of the night.

Evidence of nightmares can be seen as early as one year old, although as Nicole has written in a previous article about nightmares, many parents don’t see any evidence of nightmares until their toddler is a bit older:

Since a one-year old can’t talk or express himself that well, it’s hard to know just how complex his dreams are, but by two years old, when the imagination has really started to come alive, nightmares can get very specific. However, at this age, although they might understand a nightmare is just a dream and have an idea about what a dream is, when he wakes up, he might not fully understand the dream is over and still remain scared for a bit later.

As your child gets older, the understanding between dream and reality will get better and by 5 years old, she will have a much bigger grasp of the difference between dream and reality. Even when your child is older, it doesn’t mean the dreams won’t be scary, but they may not always need you to come for help (which I’m sure is a bittersweet feeling!)

There’s no definitive cause of nightmares, but there are certain problems or situations that may make a toddler or preschooler more prone to nightmares. These include:

  • Illness (many children are prone to nightmares when they have fevers.)
  • Overtiredness (children who are overly exhausted have more nightmares than children who are well-rested.)
  • Having irregular sleep routines (a lack of a bedtime routine can make nightmares more prevalent.)
  • Developmental milestones (children may be more prone to nightmares around the times that they’re conquering a developmental step, like learning a new skill.)
  • Stress or anxiety (outside circumstances – like a move, or the birth of a new sibling – may cause your toddler or preschooler anxiety, which can in turn cause nightmares)
  • A traumatic event (if your toddler or preschooler has experienced something traumatic, he may have repeated nightmares after the event.)

Nicole’s Note:
“I have found that my eldest son gets more nightmares when he’s too hot while he sleeps. All year round I am trying to perfect the temperature in his room, what pajamas he wears, and whether I turn the fan on or not. It’s a little maddening, to be honest! :)”

How to Deal With Your Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Nightmares

You won’t know your toddler or preschooler has even had a nightmare, of course, unless she tells you about it. And remember that your child can have nightmares that even she won’t remember.

However, you’ll probably experience the occasional middle-of-the-night waking when your toddler or preschooler does have a nightmare, and when that happens, you need to be ready to help her through her fears. Keep the following in mind as you work to comfort your toddler or preschooler after a nightmare:

  • Your child’s fear is real. The events of your little one’s nightmare may be fictional, but his fear isn’t. Respect your toddler’s or preschooler’s feelings, and offer plenty of comfort and reassurance. Physical reassurance is especially good — offer plenty of hugs!
  • Don’t add to your child’s fear by overreacting. If your child wakes crying and afraid in the middle of the night, it’s perfectly understandable for you, the parent, to feel anxious and upset as well. However, remember that your toddler or preschooler takes many of her cues from you. So if you seem agitated, it’ll only make your child more upset. If you’re able to remain calm and fairly neutral, however, it’ll go a long way towards helping your child feel reassured and relaxed. This principle applies to many other aspects of your toddler’s or preschooler’s life, too — including separation anxiety. If your child wakes from a nightmare, try singing a song together, or reading a book (this one about nightmares is great!), or simply cuddling.
  • Cutesy techniques may work, but they can also backfire. Some parents have luck with techniques like “magical monster spray” (child sprays a bit of lavender-scented water at bedtime, to ward off monsters), or doing monster hunts around the room (to prove to the child that no monsters are lurking.) And these certainly can work. However, be aware that these methods can also backfire because they play along with your child’s notion that monsters and scary creatures actually exist. In some cases, it can be better to simply remind your child frequently that monsters aren’t real, and that nothing in their room can hurt them.
  • Be wary of causing any long-term habits in response to a short-term problem. We preach this quite a bit here at The Baby Sleep Site®, and it applies here as well: don’t try to “fix” a short-term problem by helping your child to develop bad sleep habits. If you want to bring your toddler or preschooler into your bed after a bad dream, or if you want to climb into his bed with him, that’s your decision (and doing it on occasion probably won’t do any harm.) But that can quickly become a regular thing. Toddlers tend to develop bad sleeping habits quickly, and those habits can be hard for parents to break. So be mindful of the solutions you’re using to solve your toddler’s or preschooler’s nightmare problems, and make sure they’re solutions that won’t cause any long-term issues. You want to read our recent article from Dr. Kaylene Henderson for some additional tips on how to handle toddler fears and bedtime monsters.

If your toddler or preschooler struggles with night terrors, be sure to check out Part Two of our Nightmares & Night Terrors series.

Have nightmares been a problem for your toddler or preschooler? How have they affected your little one’s sleep? What tips and techniques have you learned to cope? Share your insights with us, parents!

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12 thoughts on “How to Handle Your Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Nightmares and Night Terrors: Part One”

  1. For about the last 3 months my 2.5 year old has been waking up 1-3 times a night and it’s becoming so exhausting as she was sleeping soundly through the night before this. Sometimes when she wakes up she screaming like she’s terrified, other times she seems to be crying in her sleep. I go in every time and comfort her, but just can’t seem to figure out how to make the waking/dreams stop. Nightlight or no nightlight doesn’t seem to matter, whether she’s hot or cold, light snack before bed or not – nothing makes a difference. Obviously we’ll continue to comfort her no matter how long she goes through this, but I’d love some insight or other suggestions as to what else may help.

    • Hi @Lauren, thank you for writing to us. I’m so sorry to hear you’ve been struggling so much with wake ups from your little girl! It is always sad to think they are having scary dreams that are keeping them up at night. Be sure to read the rest of the article series to see if there are any tips in there that can help, but unfortunately there’s not a cure all if she is having nightmares/night terrors.
      I will also mention that around 2 years old (which you mentioned this started happening shortly after she turned 2) separation anxiety spikes in the child and they often go through a sleep regression (the last one!!!) around that age. I just want to mention this is a thing in case she is not waking out of bad dreams but in case it started with the sleep regression and now has become a bad habit she’s continued so she can see you. I’m not a sleep consultant as I work on our Client Relations Team, I’m just trying to give another suggestion in case you want to look into that as well. Here is a link to download a free guide which will give you tips on toddler sleep and how to handle these wake ups:
      Of course if you need more help getting through this, let us know! We have a team of sleep consultants that would be happy to help you all get through this. To read about options working with a sleep consultant you can visit here: or contact us directly at [email protected] and we can help from there! Hope this helps!

  2. I enjoyed reading about this up until it used co sleeping as an example of ‘bad habit’. People choose to do things differently, doesnt make it a bad habit. This post went from helpful to judgemental in a nanosecond. I scimmed the rest. You can guarantee someone old wrote this. Bore off i say.

    • Hi @Melissa, thanks for writing to us and for visiting the Baby Sleep Site. I am so sorry you were upset when reading our article but I wanted to chime in on this, in hopes to clarify a bit better. 🙂 Here at the Baby Sleep Site, we understand that all families and babies are different and will need different things. We’ve worked with many families who need help with their co-sleeping baby that is not sleeping but they want to continue co-sleeping, and we help them. We definitely support co-sleeping when it’s done safely. 🙂 Here is an article we have about co-sleeping where we lay out some pro’s and con’s so you can get an idea of our perspective:
      I believe the writer of this article was just saying that a toddler experiencing a nightmare or scary episode may want to come in the parents bed afterwards, and that could develop a bad habit if done regularly – meaning the parents do not want their child sleeping in their bed (at this point in their life) and the child was sleeping independently prior. I hope that helps clarify a bit more. Thanks again for visiting!

  3. Hi, my 16month old son wakes up screaming, twice sometimes 3 times a night. We have the same bedtime routine every night. He goes to bed by 6:30pm and falls asleep on his own but for the last 3 months he will either go to bed screaming until he falls asleep (sometimes 30min of crying/screaming) then he will wake up around 10:00/11:00pm screaming again and trying to go back to sleep and you can hear him throwing himself in the crib while screaming & crying. Seems to me that he wants to fall back asleep but wakes suddenly as he falls asleep screaming. If I take him in bed with me he can’t settle. So if I let him cry it out he can cry/scream between 30min to 1.5hr. It’s been going on for months. During the day his restless cause hes not sleeping at night. He wakes up between 8-8:30 in the morning. Takes 1 nap during the day at noon that lasts between
    45min to 2 hours if a pooh dissent wake him. Then bedtime by 6:30pm. What is happening???? Please help.

    • @Simona – Thank you for writing to us, I am so sorry to hear you are struggling with your son’s sleep! Here is an article with some tips for night wakings with toddlers (and more related articles linked at the bottom):
      It is hard to say for sure what is causing these night wake ups – but if he is fully waking up it likely isn’t a night terror / confusional event. It may just be him trying to learn how to put himself back to sleep. Have you tried giving him milk/formula in the night to see if he seems hungry? I usually wouldn’t suggest this because at this age they are fully capable of sleeping through the night, but perhaps he needs more food during the day to keep him full through the night? Here is a link to a toddler schedule that includes feedings if you think this may be a cause:
      I hope you see a change soon! If not, come back and let us know so we can point you in the direction of more resources! Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site for help!

  4. @ Nora — so, is she actually awake when she’s crying? Or does she seem asleep as she cries? If she’s still asleep, then this could very well be some kind of nightmare or confusional event.

  5. My 9 month old granddaughter just recently started waking up crying a couple hours after going to sleep. Just rubbing her back and talking softly to her used to work to help her get back to sleep. Now she sits up and cries and I have to pick her up and rock her back to sleep. This morning I woke up to a quiet sobbing type of noise. It sounded like the hiccup sound kids make after having a severe crying spell. She was still asleep and it went on for about 15 minutes. I picked her up and rocked her and even tried to wake her up a little but it didn’t work. I put her back down and covered her up because I thought she might be cold, but she still continued for a little while, although it had slowed down. Any idea what could have caused this?

  6. @ Txbirdlady — interesting! It’s definitely possible for an infant to dream and have nightmares, since they spend so much time in REM sleep.

    Thanks for sharing a bit about your experience!

  7. I am quite certain my son started having nightmares before he was even four months old. His daycare even independently confirmed the observation. He would twitch and wriggle and then wake up screaming. All that from all accounts “one of the happiest babies” in school (and home). And no pregnancy or delivery trauma.

  8. @ Ronit — I love this story! What a sweet (not to mention effective!) way to banish your little girl’s bad dreams. So glad you found a strategy that worked for you! Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to share this little tip with the rest of us. 🙂

  9. My daughter (now 2 years and 3 months old) started suffering from nightmares a bit before her second birthday. It was obvious they were nightmares because she would wake up terrified, confused, and wanting us to comfort her. She had been on a sleep plan since she was 2 months old, so this was very irregular.
    We tried to deal with these new awakenings in a bunch of different ways- imaginary nightmare capturing boxes, talking to her about what her dreams could be about (since she was mostly unable to communicate to us in so many words what happened in these dreams), hugs, sitting with her for longer, I felt completely lost. One night I decided to try to stand at the entrance to her room with her after her bath and with our back to her door say “bye-bye bad dreams” and explain to her that all the bad dreams have now left her room and will not be able to disturb her tonight— and it worked! Ever since then she hasn’t seemed to have any more nightmares, has even begun thanking her father for taking the bad dreams away and really enjoys that one last burst of energy she gets out when she shouts “bye-bye bad dreams!” down the hallway!

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