Q. My two-year-old is loved and well cared for by my husband and me. She has not been abused or exposed to violence. So why does she have bad dreams? For some reason my daughter has had three nightmares in the past two months.
A. Just like adults, children sometimes work out confusing or difficult feelings and experiences through their dreams. Nightmares at this age are quite common, and can occur for all children regardless of their environment.
At two, children are active participants in the world around them and are taking in so much all the time. We can’t know how they are processing all that they are exposed to. Naturally some of what they see and experience is hard for them to make sense of and this can be scary. For example, the two of you might go to the pet store and see a poster of an animal that your child finds frightening. Or you may come across an object that you don’t find scary at all (like a tractor mowing the lawn at the park), but that your child finds terrifying. Later, these “characters” may find their way into your child’s dreams.
At age two, children do not really understand the difference between fantasy and reality, which can lead to an increase in fears. These sometimes get expressed through dreams. So your child may tell you that she dreamed there was a monster under her bed.
It can help your child to describe what happened in the dream and how it made her feel. Contrary to popular belief, talking about feelings does not escalate them. In fact, it helps the child move on. But don’t be worried if your two-year-old can’t verbalize or give a lot of detail about her dream—her language skills are still developing. No matter what, you can use the universal language of a hug and a kiss to make everything “all better” again. And after a nightmare, try to put your daughter back to sleep in her own bed. If you put a child back to sleep in your room after a nightmare that could become the new norm and the next time she wakes up, instead of soothing back to sleep in her own bed, she may develop the need to move to her parents bed. Going back to sleep in her own bed also teaches your daughter that her room is a safe place to sleep.
If your daughter begins to have nightmares very consistently, this is a signal to take a look at what might be going in her life that could be causing her some stress or anxiety. Sometimes changes like the addition of a sibling, a new caregiver, or the move to a new house can create uncertainty in very young children that gets translated to nightmares. If you have questions about your daughter’s nightmares, talk to her health care provider to get the names of child development specialist in your area who may be able to help.