Things that go bump in the Night – Nightmares (

This piece was written for and first appeared on in 2015

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be explaining a couple of the things that go bump in the night when it comes to our little ones. This week, we’re looking at nightmares: why they happen and what we can do about it in order to minimise the distress they cause… for both the children and ourselves.

Nightmares are known as a sleep disturbance – something that disrupts our sleeping patterns at night. I don’t always remember exactly what my nightmares are about when I have them but that’s not to say that they can be very disruptive and frightening.

In general, nightmares tend to happen in the later part of the night, during periods of active sleep (usually post-midnight). but they are not always restricted to certain times. Nor are they age-restrictive – babies, toddlers, children and adults are all likely to experience nightmares at some stage. Many children will enter a deep phase of sleep in the early hours of the morning (4am or 5am) and may have a small arousal from their sleep just before that. It’s often during this change in sleep pattern that you might see a nightmare rear its ugly head – so try not to confuse this with a child who thinks they have had enough sleep and want to start the day.

Children process the activities of the day while they are asleep and we know that they can be affected in different ways by what they have seen or heard. For one toddler,Dora the Explorer’s nemesis Swiper will just be a funny guy, but for another child, he could be the scariest, meanest character ever! Now, I’m not anti-TV, but maybe your pre-bedtime TV choices could be a little more carefully chosen.

Here are some points to remember:

  • Try to avoid scary or overstimulating things during the day and in particular, close to bedtime.
  • Make sure that they are getting enough sleep during the day if they are still napping. An overtired child is more likely to be at risk of having nightmares.

What should I do when my child has a nightmare?

Typically, when children have a bad dream they will wake up frightened or upset. They might call for you and be crying, but if they are able to articulate what has happened, they will be relatively easy to console and comfort.

Try to strike a balance between reassurance and excessive attention. Calm your child in his or her own bed or cot, and resist the urge to bring them into your bed if it is not what you would normally do. When your child wakes, go and comfort him or her. Explain that it wasn’t real and that it was just a dream. Do your best to try to reassure your child that everything is okay.

It’s very likely that the next day, your little one will remember that the bad dream happened, although they may not remember exact details about it. If they are aware though, use creative play the following day to talk things through – drawing, story time and role play games about their dreams can be really useful.

Nightmares, like many sleep related problems are a phase and they will pass. I promise.

Note: Naturally, a younger baby will not be able to explain, so it’s up to us to comfort and support them, while encouraging them to nod off again. Your seven or eight-month-old is unlikely to be a Dora the Explorer fan but, things like separation anxiety can play a part here. A sudden changes – starting crèche, for example, or moving house could also be the culprit. For younger babies, ensuring a quiet and calm bedtime can really help, as can a routine that remains the same or, at least, very similar, each night.

Next week: The dreaded Night Terrors – a very different experience to a nightmare.

Niamh O’Reilly is a sleep coach. She’s also a baby and childcare guru, a ‘parent nanny’ and the answer to many a weary parent’s woes. When it comes to baby and child issues, Niamh is your woman. Always on hand to offer a no-nonsense solution, in an approachable way. A regular in the Irish media, (most recently as TV3’s Late Lunch Show’s ‘parent nanny’) over the next while at, Niamh will share some of her experiences, helping you attain that ‘holy grail’ – nights of uninterrupted sleep for all of the family.

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