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Ask Dr. Sears: Boogeyman Blues

Q. My preschooler's started to have nightmares almost every night. Should I be concerned?

A.
Bad dreams are the most common reason for sleep disturbances in children between 2 and 5 years old. Because they occur during the light (REM) stage of sleep, people are easily awakened by them. When a bad dream jolts a child out of sleep, she becomes scared because she can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality -- in other words, she may actually believe there's a monster in her bedroom (just the kind of irrational fear a preschooler's most likely to have).

Once your child's old enough to understand that bad dreams aren't real (usually by age 7), she won't be so frightened by them. In the meantime:

? Be a detective. Ask her to describe her nightmares to see if you can pinpoint the trigger. For example, images from TV shows (like cartoon characters), videos, or book -- even age-appropriate ones -- can turn into menacing visions at night.

? Take inventory. Consider whether there have been any new and possibly unsettling events in your child's life, such as a recent move, the loss of a friend, or a switch to a new school.

? Ease her anxiety. When our kids had nightmares, my wife, Martha, and I would let them sleep on a mattress at the foot of our bed for a few days. An alternative: If she has one, let your child sleep with an older sibling until she feels safe again in her own bed.

Remember: To young children with a vivid imagination, rooms really can look scary in the dark. Furniture, toys, and other seemingly innocuous objects can project shadows or resemble a boogeyman. So in case she wakes up frightened by a bad dream, try to minimize her panicky feelings by making her room as friendly-looking as possible. Sometimes, just plugging in a nightlight or making sure a favorite lovey is within close reach, for instance, can be a simple way to comfort little kids when they wake up scared in the middle of the night.

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