What To Do When Your Kid Has Bad Dreams: A Sleep Expert's Top Tips

Written by Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD

Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, is behavioral sleep psychologist, professor at the Yale School of Medicine and the Director of the Behavioral Sleep Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

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We all know how important getting a good night's sleep is for our own health and well-being—and the same goes for kids. We also know that they might not know how to deal with all the confusing or scary things that can happen while you sleep (nightmares and sleepwalking being two). Here, sleep psychologist Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, gives solid, actionable advice to help your kid stay asleep through the night. Find more in her book, Become Your Child's Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor's 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10.

Sleep issues—like nightmares and sleepwalking—are very common in young children. Most will seek out a parent after, so here's what you can do if it happens to your kid.

What to do about a night terror:

A night terror is something your child will not remember in the morning, so your main job is to keep your child safe during these events and not to wake him or her. During a night terror, a child might have his or her eyes open, sit up in bed, leave the bed, scream or shout, or act frightened. A child will often seem confused, and he or she usually cannot be comforted by a parent. After a period of time (usually 10 to 30 minutes), the child will calm down and go back to sleep. Night terrors usually occur during the first few hours of sleep. Most children outgrow night terrors by age 4 or so.

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Identify the cause.

Night terrors can be more frequent if your child is sleep-deprived, has an inconsistent sleep schedule or a new daytime schedule, has sleep apnea, is sick, has a full bladder, or is sleeping in a new setting. Sometimes noises or lights (or even stress from a new situation) can trigger these.

Try scheduled awakenings, if needed.

If your child has night terrors frequently (many nights a week), and if these occur around the same time each night, you might want to try scheduled awakenings. To try this technique, track the time that your child has a night terror for a couple of weeks, and if it does often occur at the same time, try going to your child about 15 minutes prior to the usual episode. Gently awaken your child by speaking his or her name in a soft voice until your child flutters his or her eyelids or changes position, and then gently encourage him or her to drop right back off to sleep. Scheduled awakenings often result in a decrease in night terrors if used consistently for two to four weeks. If they do not, remember that your main job during a night terror is simply to keep your child safe.

What to do about nightmares: 

A nightmare is a bad dream that causes a child to wake up with feelings of fear. Nightmares are very common in young children. Most will seek out a parent after a nightmare, and most will also recall them in the morning. Nightmares usually occur later in the night when there is more dream sleep. 

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Assess the frequency. 

If your child has nightmares or bad dreams occasionally, these are not cause for concern. These are part of normal childhood development. If your child reports nightmares or bad dreams almost every night around bedtime, remember that nightmares usually occur during the second half of the night. This is important to remember because if your child is reporting these just after you leave or perhaps just an hour or so later, your child may be reporting them as an "admission ticket" to your bed.

Get on a bedtime schedule. 

Get on a nighttime plan that results in more sleep, which should help to significantly decrease nightmares since they are more frequent in sleep-deprived children or those with inconsistent sleep schedules. Nightmares might also occur more frequently if your child goes to bed with a full stomach, so be sure dinner is eaten well before bedtime and that the bedtime snack is light.

Give them a nighttime mantra.

You can teach your child some skills to deal with nightmares, too, by teaching your child to be in charge of his or her dreams. For example, you can help your child re-script the content of the bad dream during the day and read this new version out loud a half-hour before bed. You can end the new script with a powerful statement like, "Even when monsters come after me in my dream, I have so many superpowers!"

If you continue to be concerned about your child’s nightmares after your child is obtaining adequate sleep, please discuss this further with your child's pediatrician. 

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What to do about sleepwalking:

Sleepwalking is a normal part of childhood, and up to 40% of children sleepwalk at some point. Most of the time, this behavior disappears by puberty. One study surveyed parents of 1,800 children in Australia, and these parents noted that 10% of their children (ages 5 to 10 years old) had sleepwalked in the previous week. As common as this issue is, however, sleepwalking can be dangerous. There are several things you can do to keep sleepwalking to a minimum and to provide a safe sleep environment for your child. 

Establish an independent bedtime ritual. 

Like the above, sleepwalking is much more common in sleep-deprived children and in those with inconsistent sleep schedules. It's also more common in children who require a lot of time to fall asleep at bedtime. Finally, it's more often seen in children whose parents leave the child's room after the child has fallen asleep. All children wake up several times during the night, usually at the end of a sleep cycle. If there is something missing, such as the presence of a parent who was there at bedtime, this can trigger a sleepwalking episode. 

Get a motion sensor or alarm.

If your child sleepwalks, your most important job as a parent is to provide a safe environment. You must have a way to immediately be aware that your child is on the move at night. You can install a motion sensor with an alarm in your child's bedroom doorway. This will sound an alarm if your child leaves the bedroom. (Find options here.)

A bed alarm can be an even better choice. This alarm consists of a pad that is placed under the fitted sheet of your child's bed and is connected to an alarm by a cord that is usually a few feet long. This cord and alarm can be placed under your child's bed, hung on the headboard, or mounted on the wall. When your child leaves the bed, the alarm will sound to alert you. You can then come to your child's room, silence the alarm, help your child back to bed, and reset the alarm each time this behavior occurs. You can also put a baby monitor in the master bedroom to make sure you hear the bed alarm at night because children are very deep sleepers and your child is not likely to hear it. (Find options here.)

This type of alarm is recommended because it can go wherever your child goes. Your child is especially at risk of sleepwalking while on a sleepover, in a hotel, at summer camp, at a relative's home, or anytime he or she sleeps away from home in a new environment. This bed alarm can be used in any of these environments. You will need to be sure that any adults who will be responsible for your child know exactly how to use this alarm.

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Make a safe home.

Other home safety measures are recommended as well. You will want to install gates at the top of any stairways; add nightlights in the hallways; alarm and secure all exit doors and windows; and perhaps install high deadbolts on all exit doors as well. You will also want to keep floors and hallways clutter-free.

Don't wake the child.

When you intercept your sleepwalking child, just guide him or her back to bed. Don't try to wake your child since this can be more distressing. It's not really necessary to talk with your child about the sleepwalking episode the next day since he or she will be unaware of it. Talking about these episodes too much may make your child feel embarrassed or maybe even frightened about going to bed.

Find the trigger.

Evaluate your child's room at the time that he or she often sleepwalks. Is there a noise that occurs right around that time? Perhaps there is a neighbor who arrives home from a late shift and slams a car door, for example. Does a pet jump onto or off of your child's bed? Is the sleepwalking episode tied to a time when your child might need to urinate? Be sure you've addressed all of these causes, and feel free to add a fan or white noise machine to your child's room to mask ambient noises in the home or neighborhood. 

Adapted from Become Your Child's Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor's 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10, by Lynelle Schneeberg, M.D. Copyright Lynelle Schneeberg. All rights reserved.

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