Back to School at

Toddlers and Nightmares


Don't bother trying to cure your child's nightmares by wearing him out to the point of exhaustion during the day or by feeding him a big meal before bed. Overexhaustion or an overly full stomach will cause more restless sleep, not more peaceful sleep.

To a toddler, who has at best a tenuous grasp of the difference between reality and imagination, nightmares can be horrific experiences. When a nightmare wakes your child up, you may find him sitting straight up in bed in screaming terror or curled up in a sobbing, miserable ball.

If you can get to your toddler quickly enough and offer soothing words and caresses that comfort him, he will probably drop off again in less than a minute—and not even remember it the next day. If you take more time, however, perhaps thinking that it would be best if he would fall back to sleep on his own, he will become even more terrified and most likely require 15 or 20 minutes or more of comforting.

As every good Freudian knows, nightmares most often spring from stress and anxiety. When your child wakes with a nightmare, try to guess what the source might be:

  • Has he experienced any major change(s) recently?
  • Did he recently start daycare—or switch to a new daycare setting?
  • Did you or your partner just start going back to work?
  • Did you or your partner have to spend a night or two away from home?
  • Did you just have another baby? Or have you helped your toddler understand that a new baby is on the way?
  • Have you and your child clashed at all over his struggle to reconcile dependence and independence in eating, walking, and so on?

You probably cannot "fix" any of these lifestyle changes to your toddler's satisfaction: You can't make them go away. But you can make it easier on your child. Show him even more loving attention. If you are putting new demands on him, ease up for a while. (If he is unable to meet these demands, your child may fear your rejection and abandonment. These fears could be the source of his nightmares.) Tolerate more "bad behavior" during these difficult transitions. And above all, talk—even if your child is barely verbal—about what you've guessed is the source of his anxiety and about what dreams are. In acknowledging and understanding the cause of your toddler's stress and offering reassurance, you may help relieve it entirely.

More on: Preschool


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Preschooler and Toddler, Too © 1997 by Keith M. Boyd, M.D., and Kevin Osborn. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

stay connected

Sign up for our free email newsletters and receive the latest advice and information on all things parenting.

Enter your email address to sign up or manage your account.

Facebook icon Twitter icon Follow Us on Pinterest

editor’s picks

get ready for school!

We’ve got your
shopping list,
lunch menu,
and more.



Handwriting Headquarters
We've got handwriting practice worksheets, handwriting tips, and answers to your child's writing struggles, just in time for back to school. Brought to you by BIC.

11 Coolest Lunch Boxes for Kids
Send your child's lunch to school in style! Check out our picks for the 11 best lunch boxes with great features from BPA-free accessories to spill-resistant fabric.

7 Important Back-to-School Safety Tips
Follow these back-to-school safety tips to make sure your child stays safe on the way to school, in the classroom, and while on the playground.

Kindergarten Readiness App Wins Gold
Our Kindergarten Readiness app won the Gold Award of Excellence in the educational category at the 2014 Communicator Awards. This valuable checklist comes with games and activities to help your child practice the essential skills she needs for kindergarten. Download the Kindergarten Readiness app today!

Join BIC on our mission to save handwriting and Fight For Your Write! Writing helps kids become better readers, boosts their confidence and sparks their creativity. Visit to sign our petition to save handwriting!