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Ask the Pediatrician

Dr. Jennifer Shu and her team of pediatricians answer your health questions.

Dr. Jennifer Shu

Question & Answer

Question

My 4-year-old daughter sometimes has nightmares and now is afraid to go to bed. How should I handle the situation?

Answer

​Nightmares are common in young children and are a normal occurrence. They are often associated with an emotionally upsetting situation. Even though your daughter, at age 4, knows that what she sees in a dream is not real, her nightmares are very frightening. A child who has become apprehensive about having more bad dreams needs a lot of reassurance and support.

To help her relax at bedtime, you can read a calming story with her. Avoid television or computer games in the hours before sleep because the images may be overstimulating. You may want to sit in her room for a few nights while she goes to sleep. Once she is used to becoming drowsy in your presence, you can try the “odd jobs” method to foster independence. Using this approach, find increasingly timeconsuming jobs to do away from your child’s room, but always return at the promised time. Leave a night-light on and the door ajar so your daughter can orient herself.

When your child’s sleep is interrupted by a nightmare, give her physical comfort and soothing words. If she wants to talk about the frightening images, let her do so and reassure her that they can’t hurt her. Otherwise, save discussions about scary images for daylight hours. You may occasionally need to sit down next to her while she becomes drowsy. However, avoid making a habit of it because, if prolonged, it may bring on further disruption of sleep when you leave the bedroom.

However, if nightmares are occurring frequently (weekly or several times a week), this could be a cause for concern. Discuss this with your child’s pediatrician.

 

Source: Sleep: What Every Parent Needs to Know (Copyright © 2013 American Academy of Pediatrics)