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My Preschooler Has Nightmares

My Preschooler Has Nightmares

Help! My 3 1/2 year old son has begun having nightmares, and I really and truly don’t know what to do about it. Sleep disruptions are the worst when they crop up anew. I know this well. My daughter was a terrible sleeper until she was about 3. For all those long years, I thought I’d never get a full night’s rest. But once she got into a good rhythm, a single night of interrupted sleep (because she was sick, or wet the bed, etc.), felt 1000 times worse than years of constant exhaustion. It’s all a matter of what you’ve gotten used to. Well, I’ve been used to years of two children reliably sleeping through the night. I know that makes me fortunate. But I don’t feel so fortunate these day, because my son has woken up several nights in a row with nightmares. To be clear, these are definitely NOT night terrors. He just wakes up crying with very 3-year-old type bad dreams, and doesn’t want to go back to bed…unless it’s in our bed…and that doesn’t work well for anyone.

Helping preschoolers cope with nightmaresI feel so bad for the poor little guy. Two or three nights in a row of bad dreams and now he doesn’t want to go to sleep. He doesn’t want to stay asleep. He doesn’t want to be alone. And if I thought that all would be well if I just slept in his bed with him – whether that was for an hour or all night long – I would do it (for a limited time). But the fact is, he doesn’t sleep well with company in his bed, and he never has. And the thing that comforted him one night (a broken musical cow), had zero impact the second night it happened. And on the third night, my husband seemed to bribe him back to sleep with the promise of taking a special toy to school the next day, but that just left me wondering if my son was faking it all along, or left quivering alone in room just so he could take his Paw Patrol toys to preschool.

So now I’m at a loss. I can’t quite think about it straight because, of course, I’m sleep deprived, and I can’t seem to come up with a workable solution. And maybe I should not stress about it because I know this too will pass, but if you’ve had any experience with this, I sure would appreciate your thoughts.



  1. Pat September 18, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    It helps to address the source–scary TV program or fairytale, or just some notion about the big world that got misinterpreted. If you can get to the root of the matter, great; if not, a spray bottle of water with some vanilla makes great repellent for all things scary. Also, did you know that turning your pillow over to the cool side “changes the channel” on your dreams? It works!

    For reluctant sleepers in general, use the same strategies as for adult insomniacs: Start winding down the day right after supper–no electronics; low light, soft voices, gentle activities. Don’t go to bed ‘because it’s time’; wait until your body cues you that it’s time to sleep, then go lay in bed. Use a slow, sleepy, yawning voice to talk to yourself about how good it feels to rest and what a wonderful day you’re going to have tomorrow. Sweet dreams!

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      Media Mom September 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm

      I love the advice about not going to bed because it’s time, but adjusting bedtime more to how tired he is. While my son is in the phase of giving up naps, that’s particularly relevant.

      • Pat September 23, 2014 at 4:21 pm

        When mine were that age, I found the ‘sweet spot’ for really energetic play was right before dinner (love the crock pot, but this was so key for them–I’d actually hold a meal sometimes, to go join them). Everyone’s appetite was heightened and full bellies, followed by quiet evening routines led very easily to volunteering for stories and sleep!

        Even when my children didn’t nap, I found it helpful for everybody to take a couple of 20-30 minute ‘quiet breaks’ each day. They could read or play with quiet toys, but needed to stay ‘on their island’ (bed). The idea was that no one was to disturb anyone else–including adults–who did wish to meditate or rest. During growth spurts, they’d sleep; otherwise, they’d entertain themselves. It was just easier to keep the quiet time habit. And as soon as some got active again, everyone woke up, so typically, no super-long naps that interfered with sleep at night.

        By the way, anytime you find that self-determined bedtimes are drifting too late, you can also adjust from the a.m. side. Waking up a half hour earlier is rough the first few days, but very soon your body is craving bed and sleep at the desired time at night.

  2. Lori Strong September 23, 2014 at 12:40 am

    Your son is at an age where nightmares can begin to occur with more frequency. If you are certain that your child is having nightmares and isn’t just trying to get attention and visits from Mom and Dad in the middle of the night, you will need to comfort your child and possibly stay with them a bit until they are calm. Many parents assume a child is having a nightmare when they wake and will immediately say, “Did you have a nightmare?” Children realize that they get extra attention if they say yes. If a nightmare is recurring, it is likely due to some other stress or trigger from their day and it is important to try to find out what that is. As the reader above mentioned, be careful of media (tv and apps) that may be scary and avoid these things before bedtime. If your child’s sleep has been disrupted, it’s important that you make sure they aren’t overtired and begin their bedtime routine earlier so that they can get quality sleep at night. Talk about fears during the day. Children need to understand that it is okay to be afraid and that even adults get scared sometimes. Reinforce for them all of the things that are safe and constant in their world and give your child strategies for soothing when they feel scared. Teaching your child how to breathe deeply can be very helpful. I believe it is important to be honest with children where monsters are concerned; using spray to shoo them away reinforces that the monsters exist and will be present if not sprayed away. Using a calming spray to set a relaxing mood for bedtime as mentioned above is a good way to unwind and welcome drowsiness. Also, try to fill your little guy’s tank up with extra love and attention before bedtime so that he may not try to negotiate that time during the midnight hours. I hope you get back to your full nights of sleep soon!

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      Media Mom September 23, 2014 at 3:51 pm

      Thanks! We’re continuing to assess the situation so far with mixed results. I do think my son is having bad dreams, though not the sort that involved monsters or that sort of thing. He is able to articulate them completely and they are just weird strange dreams that leave him anxious. The other night for instance he was “walking with Daddy when a crane truck put him in a tree and a giraffe got him out.” I agree, by the way, with the philosophy of straight talk when it comes to monsters and all that jazz. We’re trying to accept that this is a phase and it too shall pass. Two nights ago was a doozy, but last night he went to sleep and slept through the night without incident. So there is some light there. Thanks for your thoughtful input!

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