Dear Jenny: My Kid Is Having Nightmares & I Don't Know How To Help Her
Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my kid has been having nightmares. She's 6, and she's been waking up every few nights and coming into our room, saying she's dreamt someone was trying to come in through the window, or our dog was chasing her. Depending on how tired my partner and I are, we either try to put her back to bed in her own room (which often wakes up her sister, who is 8, nightmare-free, and annoyed at the situation), or we let her sleep the rest of the night with us. She falls asleep like a starfish, so we trade our rest for hers.
Obviously lack of sleep is good for no one, but mostly I'm worried about my daughter's state of mind. Our pediatrician has said this is normal, especially given world events, and that it will pass, but in the meantime, it's breaking my heart to know she's going through something. Are there any tried-and-true tricks for getting kids through nightmares?
Sleepless in South Dakota
Dear Sleepless in South Dakota,
Both of my kids have had nightmares. The 3-year-old recently had a "sad dream" in which "the dog turned a different color" (although I couldn't get out of him which color). He's also had wake-up-crying dreams of a monster in his room who smiled at him but couldn't talk "because he was in a phone" (that is some David Lynch sh*t right there). In another dream, his father rescinded an offer of ice cream. Truly terrifying.
The 11-year-old has been nightmare-free for a while now, but she's gone through her own spates of bad dreams, or just plain sleeplessness, for years.
Nightmares are common, especially in kids between age 3 and 12, says Dr. Andrea Matsumura, a specialist in sleep medicine at the Oregon Clinic who moderates the public Facebook group Sleep Well with Andrea Matsumura M.D. Matsumura says there's one main culprit: "The biggest reason kids have nightmares is they don't get enough sleep." When they're exhausted, anything that's made kids feel scared or anxious, such as "a scary movie, somebody told them about the bogeyman … [or] what's happening with COVID, changes in their routine or their environments" is more likely to get worked out in a nightmare, which results in them staying or becoming even more tired.
The biggest reason kids have nightmares is they don't get enough sleep.
Dr. Megan Parker, a psychologist and parent coach, says nightmares arise directly from that anxiety. "We see nightmares when there's an uptick in stress," she says. As with dreams in general, "It's the brain processing our daily lives. It is processing our emotions, which includes our fears. It is processing the unknown."
Parker says nightmares typically start in early childhood, which she defines as up to about age 6. Kids 7 to 12 can have substantially more — "there's quite a leap in them in middle childhood.” Around 13, they taper off again.
"We see an uptick [with] life transitions, and the pandemic is definitely a life transition," Parker says. "It's the frequency we have to be mindful about."
Before you worry, consider what's normal for your child, she says. For a kid prone to anxiety and/or bad dreams, more nightmares may be related to being in that prime age range. That said, "If a child is having nightmares more than once or twice a month, then we need to start looking at their life stressors."
Both experts have advice for how to ease bad dreams. No. 1, says Matsumura, is "helping the kid make sure they have a good night's rest." It may seem like a tall order these days, when sleep patterns around the world are off due to changing school start times, an increase in screen use, and plenty to be anxious and scared about.
Still, as much as possible, Matsumura says, rely on the maxim that kids love routine. "Develop some sacred family time every night where nobody has screens, and have a rigid bedtime routine, especially for kids 12 and under." One example: "6 p.m. eat, 7 p.m. play a game for 15 minutes, 7:15 you're taking a bath, 7:45 reading a book, 8:10 in your bed and going to sleep." Also, she says, "a light and happy bedtime routine" is key: "Maybe it's obvious, but don't read anything scary before bedtime — that's not the time to talk about COVID and how they're not going to go to school for the rest of the year."
Finally, she advises, "Normalize the situation. Say, 'It's OK that you're stressed out because we're all home. It's normal for you to feel stressed that school is online and you can't see you friends.'"
If a child is having nightmares more than once or twice a month, then we need to start looking at their life stressors.
When kids do wake up in the night, Matsumura says to be ready with "lots of comfort and reassurance — cuddling them and comforting them for a short time." For families who choose, or have the resources, to keep their child in a separate bed or room, "Encourage them to go back to bed in their own bed on their own. Keep it dim. Maybe find a snuggie or something they can self-soothe with. Maybe leave the bedroom door open."
Parker says that once kids get through a relaxing bedtime routine — with screens off at least an hour beforehand — kids can practice relaxing: "Some like the breathing technique where they imagine one side of a square, and breathe out across the square. Some kids like the muscle squeeze technique: They might start at their feet and squish all their toes up, then tense all the muscles in their legs, their buttocks, their whole torso, their arms and hands, their face. When we let go, it relaxes all of that."
When I ask about limiting exposure to scary media, including the news and adult talk about the news, Parker says: "We have to walk the line with kiddos around scary things. There are some things that truly are scary, like walking in traffic. But if our child is having a bad dream about a dog, we should not keep them away from dogs. We should be careful in their exposure to dogs, but slowly teach them that dogs [can be] safe." Or at least that they can be safe around dogs. (For specific tips on sharing the news — or not — with your kid, Common Sense Media has some age-appropriate tips.)
These things that we're saying for our kids, everybody should be doing them.
No matter what, when a kid wakes up from a nightmare, "Reassure them that they're safe: 'That bad guy isn't here. You're not being chased,'" Parker says.
"I strongly recommend to parents, if their child's nightmares are becoming frequent, to seek professional help," she says. At home, focus on addressing the stressors your kid is facing right now. "Helping kids through transitional times will help decrease the bad dreams."
Don't forget about yourself, either, says Matsumura. She's seen an uptick in sleep issues "across the board. In truth, these things that we're saying for our kids, everybody should be doing them."
THINGS ARE VERY BAD RIGHT NOW, SO SLEEP DISTURBANCES ARE NO SURPRISE. AS ALWAYS, VALIDATE YOUR KID'S LIVED EXPERIENCE, TRY TO GET ENOUGH SLEEP (HA! HA HA!), AND BE THERE FOR YOUR KIDS AS WE LIVE THROUGH CIRCUMSTANCES WE DIDN’T SEE COMING AND CAN’T CONTROL. YOU GOT THIS.
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