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Ben is in the middle of a wonderful dream. He's riding the ocean waves with his family when — BAM! — along comes a giant sea creature poised for attack. Ben thrashes in bed, trying to fight off the monster. When he calls out, his mom comes in to see what's wrong. "It's all right, Ben," she says, smoothing his sweaty forehead. "You had a bad dream, and now you're awake. You're awake and you're safe."

What Exactly Is a Nightmare?

If you've ever had a nightmare, you're in good company. Almost everyone gets them once in a while — adults, as well as kids. A nightmare is a bad dream. It can may make you feel scared, anxious, or upset, but nightmares are not real and can't harm you.

While you sleep, your brain doesn't just turn off. It goes through several sleep stages, including REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Why do they call it that? Because during this stage of sleep, your eyes move back and forth under your closed eyelids. During REM sleep, you have dreams and sometimes those dreams can be scary or upsetting.

About every 90 minutes your brain switches between non-REM sleep and REM sleep. The amount of time spent in REM sleep increases with each sleep cycle through the night. The longest periods of REM sleep occur towards morning. If you wake during this REM stage, it is easier for you to remember what you were dreaming about. That's why your most vivid dreams — and nightmares — occur in the early morning hours.

Why Do I Get Nightmares?

Stressful things that happen during the day can turn dreams into nightmares. Nightmares may be a way to relieve the pressures of the day. This usually means dealing with things most kids have to face at one time or another: problems at home, problems at school, and stress from sports or schoolwork. Sometimes major changes, such as moving or the illness or death of a loved one, can cause stress that leads to nightmares.

Another thing that may cause nightmares is watching scary movies or reading scary books, especially before you go to bed.

Sometimes if you are sick, especially with a high fever, you may have nightmares. Certain medications also can cause nightmares. Let your parents and doctor know if you notice you are having more nightmares around the time you started a new medicine.

But sometimes you might have a nightmare for no reason at all.

How Can I Prevent Nightmares?

Although it is normal to have a nightmare once in a while, there are some techniques you can try to get nightmares under control.

Get into a healthy sleep routine. Try to go to bed about the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Unless you're sick or didn't get enough sleep the night before, avoid naps during the day. Avoid eating or exercising just before bedtime. Avoid scary books or movies before bedtime if you think they might be causing your nightmares.

Sleep with a stuffed toy or favorite blanket. This helps some kids feel more secure.

Use a nightlight. Even if you gave up yours up years ago, you might want to turn it back on. With a nightlight, if you awake from a nightmare, you'll be able to see familiar things and remember where you are.

Keep your door open. This will help you remember that your family is close by. If you are scared, get up and find someone for reassurance. You're never too old for a hug!

What if the Nightmares Don't Go Away?

Most of the time, nightmares are not a big problem. It often helps to tell a trusted adult about your bad dreams. Just talking about what happened might make you feel better. If something has been troubling you during the day, discussing those feelings also may help.

Some kids "rewrite" their nightmares by giving them happier outcomes. For example, Ben could imagine hopping on that sea monster and bringing his family along for a great ride. Another trick to get control of your nightmares is to draw a picture of the bad dream and then rip it up!

Sometimes it helps to keep a dream journal, a notebook in which you describe the dreams you can recall. Tracking your dreams — good and bad — and how you felt before you went to sleep can give you a better sense of how your mind works at night.

If you have frequent nightmares, you and your parent might want to see a counselor or a psychologist to help you deal with your bad dreams. It will give you a chance to talk about some of the things bothering you that may be related to your nightmares.

Rarely, kids with frequent nightmares may need to visit a doctor or a sleep clinic. A doctor can determine whether your nightmares are the result of a physical condition. A sleep clinic can check your brain waves, muscle activity, breathing, and other things that happen with your body while you sleep. If nothing else seems to work, your doctor may prescribe medicine designed to help you sleep through the night.

Remember, nightmares are not real and they cannot hurt you. Dreaming about something scary does not mean it will happen in real life. And it doesn't mean you're a bad person who wants to do mean or scary things. Everyone has nightmares now and then.

You aren't a baby if you feel afraid after a nightmare. If you need to snuggle with a parent or even a sister or brother, that's all right. Sometimes just talking to a parent or grabbing a quick hug may be all you need.

Nightmares may be scary for a little bit, but now you know what to do. Sweet dreams!

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2013

 
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Related Resources:
International Association for the Study of Dreams
This organization promotes the study of dreams and the significance, nature, and function of dreaming.
National Sleep Foundation (NSF)
NSF is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and safety by achieving understanding of sleep and sleep disorders, and by supporting education, sleep-related research, and advocacy.