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Put a Stop to Nightmares: Tips for Soothing Your Child to Sleep

July 14, 2014

childnightmaresThose bedtime stalls with pleas for water, cuddling or just one more book can be frustrating as a parent or nanny, but they can also be a sign that your child is having nightmares and is fearful of falling asleep. Nightmares can be frightful for your little one and cause resistance at bedtime.

“When your child has a nightmare, he or she is trying to process something they perceived as negative the previous day,” says Lauri Loewenberg, dream expert and author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life.

Unlock the root of the problem by learning how to soothe your child to sleep and fully understand the nightmares he or she is experiencing.

The Dreaming Process

Although it would be ideal for a child to dream only of sugar plums and fairy tales, the reality is that many children face their greatest fears when they close their eyes at night. “Dreaming is a thinking process,” says Loewenberg. “It is a continuation of the thoughts that went through your mind during the day and once you go to sleep and enter the REM (the dream state), your thinking shifts from the literal conscious mind to the symbolic subconscious mind.”

If something troubles your child at night, you can bet you’ll find the culprit by examining your child’s previous day. Did she experience a disappointment, punishment or confrontation with another child? Talking through your child’s problems prior to bed can help put his or her mind at ease before falling into sweet slumber.

Nightmares Unveiled

If you find that your child’s nightmares sound familiar, don’t be surprised. Many children experience some of the same fearful dreams as a natural part of child development. Some of the most common dreams include:

  • Getting Eaten: According to Loewenberg, this is especially common for very young children. “While we, as adults may say, ‘You’re so cute I could eat you up,’ to a young child, that is a frightening thing to hear,” she says. “In addition, so many of our favorite fairy tales involve cannibalism, such as Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk.” For older children, this could mean something is really eating away at them, says Loewenberg, such as bullying or taunting by classmates or siblings.
  • Getting Lost: For very young children, this nightmare is pretty self-explanatory, says Loewenberg. Malls, parking lots and airports are very congested and busy places. “If your young child gets this nightmare, there’s a good chance your child was at one of these locations the day before,” she says. “For older children, getting lost may be more about feeling out of place in school or they may be dealing with a tough situation and are feeling ‘lost’ as to what to do about it.”
  • Getting Kidnapped: This nightmare is more common for older children and reflects their awareness that someday they will be pulled out of the safety of the nest and be out on their own, says Loewenberg. “The kidnapper is life and growing up,” she says. “Less often, this nightmare is caused by something disrupting the child’s normal daily routine, which could be anything from a new baby in the family to a divorce.”
  • Monsters and Witches: These common characters terrorize a child’s sleep, most often when the child gets in trouble the previous day, says Loewenberg. “An angry, yelling parent is as ugly and frightening to a child as a monster,” she says. “However, the monster can sometimes be the dreaming child’s perception of a bully, a strict teacher or a taunting sibling.”

Putting a Stop to Nightmares

The most effective way to get the ghosts and goblins in your child’s dream to scram is to re-write the end of the nightmare, suggests Loewenberg. “Our dreams are a creation of our own mind, therefore we can recreate the dream or nightmare to our liking – even children can do this,” she says. “It’s all about taking control of a situation that made you feel powerless.

If your child is struggling with nightmares, ask him or her to draw what was scary in the dream. Then, have the child re-write the ending to how they would like it to end or redraw the scary monster into something silly and benign. “Let your child come up with the changes,” says Loewenberg. “This is not only a fun and creative activity for the child, but it desensitizes him to the fear and gives him a chance to feel powerful.”


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