Childhood nightmares: Why they happen and how to help

Children can start having nightmares as early as 6 months old. They're most common in children between the ages of 3 and 6, as they begin to develop more vivid imaginations and are processing daytime anxiety and stress.

A child lying in bed, covering their face with their hands
Photo credit: Thinkstock / ozgurcoskun

If your child wakes up crying or fearful and has trouble getting back to sleep, chances are they've had a nightmare. These scary episodes usually occur during the second half of the night, when dreaming is most likely to occur. Your child may remember their bad dream the next day and may continue to be bothered by it.

Nightmares differ from night terrors, a less common sleep disturbance that usually strikes during the first third of the night. Children having a night terror episode remain fast asleep throughout, in a deep, non-dreaming state, yet they're extremely agitated and hard to console. Afterward, they go back to sleeping soundly and don't remember the incident in the morning.

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When do kids start having nightmares?

Most kids have nightmares once in a while, but young children between the ages of 3 and 6 are particularly prone. This is the age when usual fears develop, imagination blossoms, and the ability to describe a bad dream kicks into high gear.

Some younger children may also have nightmares, beginning as young as 6 months, and nightmares can persist until a child is 10 or older.

The frequency of your child's nightmares can vary pretty widely. Experts estimate anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of children age 3 to 6 have nightmares. Some kids will have them regularly, some only once in a while, and up to 25 percent of kids have them about once a week.

It's normal for kids to have bad dreams every once in a while. Here's why.

Why childhood nightmares happen

Since experts are still trying to figure out exactly how and why people dream, nightmares are even more of a mystery. No one fully understands why they happen to kids or adults, though experts believe dreams play a part in how we process emotions and store memories. Nightmares, similarly, are often how people of all ages process feelings of anxiety and stress.

This is particularly true for kids, who may not feel stress and anxiety in the same ways as adults but still cope with experiences that are difficult for them. Children also have fewer ways of communicating or expressing their stressors, so they may have more nightmares as they process those negative emotions.

Your child's nightmares may stem from listening to a story that's scary (even if it doesn't seem scary to you), watching an upsetting video, show, or movie, getting excited or worked up before bed, or feeling anxious or stressed during the day. (Pay attention to what your child sees on YouTube and other websites – even if they don't watch scary videos, they may see video thumbnails with disturbing images, which could give them nightmares.)

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Many things can cause stress for a child, including developmental changes like potty training or moving to a big-kid bed, getting a new teacher or starting at a different school, or a parent's layoff from work. For a child processing their feelings about these stressful events, nightmares are a normal response, and you're not a bad parent if your child has them.

If violence in the news seems to be distressing to your child, read our articles on how you can talk to them about difficult events like war and school shootings.

In addition to stress and anxiety, not getting enough sleep and being very ill can also trigger nightmares.

How to help your child after a nightmare

Go to your child when they cry out. Physical reassurance is essential, so hug them or rub their back until they calm down. 

Ask them to tell you about the nightmare. If they aren't willing to talk about it, try again during the day – getting some distance from the scary incident may make it easier for your little one to talk about it. Learning what your child is dreaming about can help you identify and remove stressors in their life.

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Console them verbally, but remember that "it's only a dream" might not be much help – 2- to 4-year-olds are only just beginning to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. But it's still something worth saying since children this age are ready to start learning that nightmares aren't real.

You may also want to show your child no monsters are hiding under the bed or in the closet. Be nonchalant about it to avoid getting drawn into an all-the-lights-on monster-hunt extravaganza. 

Double-check that your child's favorite toy or stuffed animal is tucked in with them, make sure the nightlight is on, and remind them that you're right down the hall, ready to ensure that everyone in the house is safe.

How to prevent nightmares

First, make sure your child is getting enough sleep. A peaceful bedtime routine – a warm bath, a happy, soothing story, a song, and a nightlight – can help ward off nightmares. 

Try reading bedtime books that discuss dreams and sleeping, such as In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, Mommy, Daddy, I Had a Bad Dream! by Martha Heineman Pieper and Jo Gershman, or Brave Little Monster by Ken Baker.

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Sometimes children feel better if they attempt to take control of a scary situation. Though not all kids are comforted by methods like these, here are a few nighttime tricks to try:

  • Write a sign that says, "Only good dreams allowed here," or a similar sentiment, to hang over your child's bed. Have them decorate it with stickers or drawings of things they enjoy and want to dream about.
  • Let them rub a little skin lotion or face cream – you might call it "good dream cream" – on their tummy or forehead before turning in for the night.
  • Fill a spray bottle with water scented with a couple drops of vanilla extract ("monster spray" or "nightmare repellent") and let your child banish scary dreams by spritzing a little around their room before bed.

If you suspect anxiety or stress is behind the bad dreams, try talking to your child about what might be bothering them during the calmer daylight hours. While occasional nightmares aren't anything to be concerned about, if the nightmares persist and your child is extremely afraid of going to bed or fearful during the day, bring it up with your pediatrician – the dreams could signal an emotional issue or traumatic event that needs addressing.

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American Academy of Pediatrics. 2022. Nightmares, Night Terrors, and Sleepwalking in Children. a new window [Accessed February 2023]

Better Health Channel. 2014. Sleep - Children and Nightmares. a new window [Accessed February 2023]

Cleveland Clinic. 2020. Nightmares in Children: Causes and Prevention. a new window [Accessed February 2023]

Nemours Foundation. 2018. Nightmares. a new window [Accessed February 2023]

Pagel, J.F. 2006. Nightmares and Disorders of Dreaming. American Family Physician 61(7):2037-2042. a new window [Accessed February 2023]

Sleep Foundation. 2022. Nightmares. a new window [Accessed February 2023]

Woolley J, et al. 2013. Revisiting the Fantasy-Reality Distinction: Children as Naïve Skeptics. Child Development 84(5):1496-1510. a new window [Accessed February 2023]

Sarah Bradley

Sarah Bradley is a freelance health and parenting writer from Connecticut, where she lives with a lot of boys (a husband, three sons, and a golden retriever). When she isn't writing, Bradley is usually homeschooling, binge-watching TV shows, and taking care of her many houseplants. She might also be baking a cake.