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Children and Nightmares Part 1

scared child with bad dream

Your child appears at the side of your bed in the middle of the night saying they had a bad dream. Now what? Nightmares are very common and all kids have them. Infrequent nightmares are usually not a cause for concern, but if they are happing more often, some investigating might be required.

Nightmares change with the age and stage of development of the child. So, let’s talk a little more about what nightmares look like at each age.

Nightmares at each age

For babies and children until age 5 they are in a developmental stage where they can’t distinguish between a dream and reality. They do not understand that the dream is over when they wake up.

For 1-year olds, the content of their dream is simple.

For 2-year olds, their fears and impulses manifest in dreams about monsters or animals. [i] Dr. Richard Ferber says that at this age their dreams are symbolic and toddlers fear separation. Potty training can also cause bad dreams when children either worry about having an accident or do have one.

By age 5, children understand that they have been dreaming. They can now distinguish a dream from reality. Dr. Ferber also writes that “between ages three and six children are resolving aggressive and sexual impulses. They need to be taught jealousy and sexual urges are normal.”

By age 7, children can have a bad dream and know it was a dream and do not need to wake a parent. Nonetheless, for any age a nightmare is still really scary. Until age 11 nightmares usually happen about once a month or less. After age 11, nightmare should be even more infrequent. If your child is having nightmares often after the age of 11 there might be ongoing stress in his life that should be addressed.

In the teenage years, nightmares become more frequent again.

Other causes of nightmares

Nightmares can also happen when a child’s airway is partially blocked. A bad dream can be the result of a bad cold or throat infection.[ii] So if your child is sick don’t be alarmed if they have a bad dream. Comfort them and it will pass.

What time of night do nightmares happen?

Nightmares happen during REM sleep. We all have bad dreams but we usually don’t remember them, unless we wake at the end of the dream. When a child wakes up from a nightmare they can tell you why they are scared and what happened in their dream.

Nightmares usually happen in the second half of the night, so if right after bedtime they are coming to you saying they had a bad dream but they don’t appear to be genuinely scared or can’t talk about what happened in their dream then it probably wasn’t a bad dream. If your child does have a nightmare they will look and act scared. Also, nightmares don’t happen every night so if they are coming to you saying they are having nightmares every night, be suspicious and investigate more.

If you are curious about how you should respond when your child has a nightmare see my part 2 blog post on How To Respond To Nightmares.

Happy sleeping y’all!

©February, 201 9 by Erin Myrmel at Sleep Baby, LLC

Erin Myrmel

Sleep Baby, LLC


This information is being provided to you for educational and informational purposes only. It is being provided to you to educate you about pediatric sleep and as a self-help tool for your own use. It is not intended nor is implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or the health and welfare of your baby, toddler or child. This information is to be used at your own risk based on your own judgment. For my full Disclaimer, please go to

[i] Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems

[ii] Marc Wiessbluth Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child

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