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Understanding and calming the restless nights of toddlers

Published on September 20, 2023 at 11:59

Although disturbing, nightmares in children are completely normal, as they are an integral part of their development. However, they can disrupt sleep, not only for the child but for all the other members of the family. So, how do you manage your little ones' restless nights? Here are a few ideas to explore.

What is a nightmare?

A nightmare is a bad dream that occurs during the paradoxical phase of sleep, i.e. at the end of the night, when the brain is active. There's nothing worrying about nightmares when they occur occasionally, as they can be triggered by things that happened during the day.

How do nightmares happen?

In the aftermath of a nightmare, your child may scream, cry, shake, and, of course, call you in the middle of the night because they totally frightened. They may find it hard to remember all the details of the bad dream. However, the fact remains that the feeling of fear is there, making it hard for your child to get back to sleep.

What's the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?

Often confused by parents, nightmares and night terrors are actually two different sleep disorders.


Normally, following a nightmare, your child is awake and alert—but frightened. They may be able to remember most of the bad dream and tell you about it. They may have difficulty going back to sleep.

Night terror

When a night terror occurs, your child is not fully awake. Instead, they are confused, disoriented and unable to remember or recount anything. Unlike nightmares, night terrors appear during the deep sleep phase, i.e. at the beginning of the night, and once they're over, the child goes back to sleep normally.

What are the possible causes of nightmares?

It's hard to pinpoint the cause. There are many reasons for nightmares, including: 

  • Difficult or stressful situations experienced during the day
  • Strong or contradictory emotions
  • A change (moving house, separation, arrival of a new baby, etc.)
  • A significant or traumatic event
  • Illness (especially fever)

A good discussion with your child can help you understand what they are experiencing at the time and identify the origin of their nightmares.

How do you react to nightmares?

Children don't have nightmares on purpose. A comforting voice and gestures should be used with your child. For example:

  • Go to your child's room and stay there for a few minutes to comfort them
  • Try to understand your child's fear, while explaining that it's just a bad dream, not reality
  • Help them to calm down with soothing toys (cuddly toys, stuffed animals, dolls, etc.)
  • Be sympathetic to their fears, not mocking them, and try to find out if a situation bothers them, be it at daycare, school, home, etc.
  • Listen to them if they want to tell you about their nightmare, no matter the time of day

Remember that the events and emotions your child experiences during the day are often transposed into their dreams (nightmares).

How can I reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares?

It is possible for your child to have better sleep and reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares thanks to a few simple practices. For example:

  • Control the images your child watches during the day and before bedtime, whether on TV, computer, cell phone or tablet
  • Avoid fear-inducing emotions before your child goes to bed. If your child is afraid of the dark, install a small nightlight in their room
  • Establish a soothing, comforting bedtime routine with your child

These little tips should help your child sleep better.

What to do about persistent nightmares?

Nightmares are normal when they occur occasionally. However, if the frequency and intensity increase or the nightmares persist over time, it's best to consult a doctor or psychologist with your child.

On that note, have a good night’s sleep!

Text written in collaboration with Vie de Parents

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