It's not clear at what age kids begin to dream, but even toddlers may speak about having dreams - pleasant ones and scary ones. While almost every child has an occasional frightening or upsetting dream, nightmares seem to peak during the preschool years when fear of the dark is common. But older kids (and even adults) have occasional nightmares, too.
Nightmares aren't completely preventable, but parents can set the stage for a peaceful night's rest. That way, when nightmares do creep in, a little reassurance and comfort from you can quickly restore your child's peace of mind.
Helping kids conquer this common childhood fear also equips them to overcome other scary things that might arise down the road.
When Do Nightmares Happen?
Nightmares - like most dreams - occur during the stage of sleep when the brain is very active and sorting through experiences and new information for learning and memory. The vivid images the brain is processing can seem as real as the emotions they might trigger.
This part of sleep is known as the rapid eye movement or REM stage because the eyes are rapidly moving beneath closed eyelids. Nightmares tend to happen during the second half of a night's sleep, when REM intervals are longer.
When kids awaken from a nightmare, its images are still fresh and can seem real. So it's natural for them to feel afraid and upset and to call out to a parent for comfort.
By about preschool age, kids begin to understand that a nightmare is only a dream - and that what's happening isn't real and can't hurt them. But knowing that doesn't prevent them from feeling scared. Even older kids feel frightened when they awaken from a nightmare and may need your reassurance and comfort.