It happened. The creepy moment I’d been anticipating since we switched to a big-boy bed….I awoke in the middle of the night to my 2-year-old standing still as a statue beside my bed, staring at me. He reached out his little hand, zombie-style, and said “kiss it.” I asked what happened and he said matter-of-factly “a horse bit it.” As I hugged him and led him back to his room, he forcefully stopped me and said “Mommy, I do NOT want that horse to come back.”
I recently learned that nightmares peak at age 2-4. It makes sense – at this age, everything is changing, from speaking in words instead of cries, to pooping in giant vats of spinning water instead of the much less scary diapers… not to mention sorting through which of your cute little cartoon friends are going to suddenly appear before you in massive-3D-real-life form (ie: Santa, Mickey, etc). It’s a lot.
While my son’s favorite books, cartoons and movies include dinosaurs, monsters, snakes, tigers, spiders, and weirdo creatures (a talking sponge that wears pants? THAT is the stuff of nightmares)…surprisingly, the little movies in his head have been devoid of scary monsters. It’s mostly ordinary stuff that’s bugging him in his subconscious state.
Here are some of the reasons my son has recently given for his waking up screaming:
- That damn cranky horse that bit him (see above)
- He wants his alphabet candy back. I don’t even know what that is, and he’s certainly never had it at our house. And I didn’t even know he knew the word “alphabet.”
- There are shapes on the ceiling – specifically triangles and squares. Super scary, apparently.
- Daddy took his balloons and he wants Daddy to come upstairs RIGHT NOW. To explain himself, I guess.
- Daddy took his crayons. Why does Dad keep taking his stuff??
It seems you can take away the seemingly scary stimulus all you want, and kids are still gonna have upsetting dreams. The tricky part is figuring out how to explain those dreams to kids. It’s not enough to say “It wasn’t real,” because it felt SO real. Even as adults, dreams can mean we hold that anxious feeling with us for a while – I have woken up super peeved at my husband, and carried it around until after I’ve had my coffee.. and I’m a grown up who knows exactly where that dream/reality line lies.
Here are 3 suggestions for talking to young kids about dreams:
- Validate their feelings. It’s real for them, so ask what happened in the dream, how it made them feel, explain that everything’s okay… talk to them about it just like you would with something that scares them during the day. Oh, and try not to laugh! (me: guilty)
- Extra cuddles! Hugs and kisses make pretty much everything better at this age. (And then send them back to bed. After some good reassurance, stick with the norm. Dreams would be a great excuse to add to the list of reasons to crawl in mom and dad’s bed every night!)
- Find books or videos where the characters experience dreams, like The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream book. While telling them it’s a movie in their head is a great start, seeing it in story form will further help their understanding.
And here are some ideas to help keep dreams happy:
-Talk about dreams before bed. As part of the bedtime routine, talk about what they want to dream about – plant some good, happy, positive images in their sleepy little brains!
-Keep the sleeping environment as comfortable as possible. A hot or loud room can cause subconscious stress, so keep a comfy room temperature, dress them appropriately, block extraneous light sources (a small nightlight at the most), and use a sound machine.
Even if you do all of the above, bad dreams are still gonna happen from time to time! Especially when kids are overtired, growing, hitting major milestones or going through extra stress of any kind. So, if you’re losing sleep over your toddler’s nightmares, know that by around age 5 he or she will have a pretty solid grasp on the difference between dreams and reality.
In the meantime, make sure to check the room for horses before bed.