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.