Do Toddlers Have Recurring Nightmares?

We (and I mean you and I) are reaching a new milestone right this very second.  Instead of logging on to WebMD or calling Sadie’s pediatrician, I am first asking you about a peculiar parenting situation that has me flummoxed.

Something tells me that you guys will give me insight and perspective I need when the doctor’s office opens, and I can talk to someone in a professional capacity.

Here’s the deal:

About 12 days ago, Sadie started having a recurring nightmare during her nap.  She wakes up crying– real, legitimate heartbreaking tears of distress.  I can hear her sobbing into her pillow, so I go into her room, and she seems so grateful to see me.  I find it odd that she doesn’t come get me down the hall like she used to only two weeks ago.

The first two times I went to her, I patted her head and asked her if she had a bad dream.  Both of those times, she gave the exact same report: “It was big. Big, Mommy. My room was really big, my bed was big and all my toys were really big.  The big thing was coming.” It didn’t seem rehearsed or calculated– she was still half asleep and talking really fast.

I asked her a few questions, and she kept repeating that “Something big was coming.  Everything was big.”

A few days later, S., our sitter, reported she had the exact same scene with Sadie, when she put her down for a nap.  (I hadn’t told her about Sadie’s dream.)

Then, it happened again yesterday afternoon– after sleeping for about 40 minutes, Sadie came out into the hall, looking confused and terrified.  Again, she told me about how big her bed was, and confirmed that she was very scared.

Sometimes at night, she says she is afraid of having that dream again.

Here’s something even more odd: I told Jeff about these dreams and the terrorizing “bigness” in them, and he said that he used to have a similar dream when he was a kid.  He couldn’t remember what age he was, but he definitely remembered nightmares about the scale of his bedroom.

Because of my years of therapy, I can’t help but analyze this dream.  I have decided that the dream is about Sadie starting preschool.  Ya’ll, we have talked up preschool like it’s not only the bees knees, but also the wings, the torso and the head.  “Sadie, it’s going to be so fun!  There will be so many friends to play with every day! You are such a big girl now.”

This is what Sadie deserves. (image from

This is what Sadie deserves. (image from


During the day she seems amped about school and tells everyone she’s about to start.  Her teacher sent her a letter in the mail, including a picture of herself doing a yoga pose (tree), and Sadie walks around talking to the picture of Ms. G all the time.  She sleeps with it at night.

We have also read books about starting school.  She’s obsessed with an Elmo video that has one of the most annoying songs about “getting ready for school.”

My hypothesis is that Sadie knows that something big is coming (because we’ve beat that head underneath her curls about it), and she’s trying to process it emotionally.  During the day, when she’s awake, it all seems exciting, but her terror about change or having to be a big girl or the impending newness catches up with her when she’s dozing off.

So, ya’ll, my wise, informed, generous, and more experienced parents, what do you think? Have you heard of 3-year-old kids having recurring nightmares? What do you think about my hypothesis?  Should I lay off all the pro-school propaganda and let her just enjoy the last few days as a little girl?

[Also: Don’t google “child’s nightmares,” because the images were so scary that now I have to sleep with a light on.]

Thank you for the feedback!


32 thoughts on “Do Toddlers Have Recurring Nightmares?

  1. Yep. She’s processing. And well. It IS big, this pre-school thing. I’d lay off the “getting prepared” stuff and say something like, “you know, when I was getting ready for pre-K, I was really worried…” or something like that & give her some room to voice her anxieties. If she says she’s not worried, that’s fine – you can tell from the dream that she is, but she doesn’t want to cop to it. My kids had recurring dreams around big transitions, too (kindergarten was an epic few weeks of sleeplessnes) … Let her be a “baby” for a while in anyway that she wants to be, and let her know that it’s okay for her to do that. These babies of ours, they become actual, you know, PEOPLE, so quickly.

    • Oh, this is exactly what I am talking about. This comment of yours is what I have always wanted: someone to relate to and give me advice I am asking for. Someone who’s been there. Someone like you. I am so grateful. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience, strength and hope!

      Your kids and I are lucky!

  2. This is incredibly fascinating. I think your analysis is spot-on. I would definitely scale back the pre-school talk. You want her to be prepared but not anxious. It is wild the way these kids have their own process. Like I was telling you last week how L was having trouble processing Ian being away for a few days. Since Ian rarely ever travels, that was something totally new for him and he was struggling with the emotions. It’s so fascinating to think about, though really hard to watch as a mom. I just wish they could know we will do everything in our power to protect them at all times. The sad fact though, is we can’t be with them at all times. Big hugs for you and Sadie.

    • It’s totally fascinating. Helps me know and realize how complex her emotional life already is. Time to read our Curious George books instead of those back to school ones.

      Thank you!

  3. It must be the preschool anxiety or maybe you are letting her watch scary movies while you write your blog? 🙂 With nightmares, it is really hard at this age because they don’t really know the difference of real and make-believe and this lasts for quite a few years.

    My own examples–Mara is terrified of Santa and it has yet to change and she is 8! In her eyes, there is some old man that comes into our house and leaves her presents. This goes against everything I have taught her about taking gifts from strangers! As for the Easter Bunny, she feels safe because he can’t go upstairs to her room since his feet are too big for the steps (how nuts is that?). The Tooth Fairy, however, is OK because she is pretty and has wings.

    The two of you will need to do some sort of routine before bed to help her feel comfortable in the case she gets scared, such as making a dream catcher, sleeping with her bravest stuffed animal, keeping a night light on, tell her what she can do or say in her dream to feel safe and do some sort of role play, etc. I remember naming hundreds of things that made Jeffrey smile one time while he had a nightmare–that helped! Can she draw what is looks like or is that too scary?

    Sweet dreams,

    • How creative and adorable is your Mara???!!! I am totally going to get a dream catcher. Excellent idea. As always, I wish you were just down the street do we could have a cup of tea and discuss in person.

  4. I feel like Deborah totally nailed it with her reply. I definitely think it is related to school, and I would just act very nonchalant about school for a while. Have you picked up a copy of The Kissing Hand, by any chance? It is a great story for kids getting ready to start school for the first time. 🙂

  5. I second Ashley on The Kissing Hand. The director at my son’s school talks about that book every year at parent orientation and recommends it. I’ve never read it to my son but when he started school, I did kiss his hand and tell him that if he got (oh lordy and now I’m sobbing) sad or scared then to open his hand and my kiss was right there with him. It’s something simple, special and something they understand.

    I agree 100% to Deborah’s comment about Sadie’s dream. Nothing I can add there. Ryan started having monster dreams where he was afraid to go to bed and what worked for us was first to “pick” the bad dreams out of his head and throw them away. Then we’d look for a happy dream, catch it and put it in his head. And before we turn the light off we talk about what his happy place is and tell him to think about that as he falls asleep. Seems to work.

    • I just ordered the book– those two raccoons— I am sobbing as well. This whole thing…I used to make fun of other people for being so emotional about this. I should have known it would be me.

  6. I don’t think I have much to add to all of the wonderful comments you already got. I’d just say that maybe you want to hold off on reading Alice in Wonderland 😉

    I hope the nightmares go away once school starts! It’s totally spooky that Jeff remembers having the same dream. Maybe it would help if he talked to her about having the same dream and how nothing big and bad happened and the dream went away? Or maybe her bedroom is just getting ready for her to be a big girl? So interesting yet heartbreaking for you! Let us know how it sorts out!

    • I definitely thinking bonding with jeff over the dream will be a great idea. And thanks for the head’s up about Alice in Wonderland. I can imagine I would have walked right into that one!

      I’ll keep you posted.

  7. YIKES! I have to learn to listen to people when they tell me NOT to Google something.
    I think that your thoughts on the cause are right on…it’s a lot for a little person to process! But isn’t it amazing that she’s actually DOING it? Actually PROCESSING something like that? Our kids brains are so astounding to me.
    I wish I could give her a big hug. Scared toddlers are one of the saddest things ever.

    • I am in total awe of her process. That she can process. It’s amazing to behold. I also think it’s healthy to have some trepidation about new things…that seems adaptive and good. I just want to support her and let her have the feelings without trying to fix, deny or exacerbate them.

  8. Aw, poor Sadie. If I were Dean Koontz, I could take your post and make a best selling novel from it. It kind of reminds me of something he would write about. “Angelic Sadie and her father have had dreams that something BIG was coming since they were both children. Can they solve the puzzle and save the world before the BIG wipes us out?”

    But since I’m not Dean, I think your hypothesis is right on. I say lay off on the pre-school talk and see what happens. If it continues after pre-school starts, we’ll call Dean and get his take on it. 🙂

    • Yes, let’s hold off on the big guns, Mr. D. Koonz, until we know if this is going to be continuing. And I half want to download a Koonz book to read it and satirize it as you just did.

  9. I think you have gotten great comments above, but want to chime in and agree with them. I think at this point she doesn’t really need to “prepare” – she just needs you to drive her there, walk her in, and the rest will happen. So I would stop talking about it and enjoy the long weekend, I’d take her tomorrow to see the classroom but more in a matter-of-fact way without any commentary at all, and see if some of the stress dissipates. In fact, I might make some fun plans for after the meet-and-greet so that she is half occupied with thinking about going to get bagels after or to a playdate or something, and this is just a stop on the way.

    I have had the same recurring nightmare for 22 years. My dad has a similar one, we have compared notes and it is really amazing. Ours involves having to sit for an exam in school and not being prepared – and I have it whenever I am facing stress regardless of the context, which has not been academic in 13 years. Although it is not an enjoyable dream, I do kind of like that my dad and I share this. Maybe that is a positive spin you can use if you are feeling scared for Sadie?

    • That’s such a great idea about having a fun plan for AFTER the school introduction tomorrow. If it involves anything with sugar or swimming, she won’t give a flying tootsie pop about school. Great, great idea. We haven’t mentioned it at all today and she’s busy making me pretend to be our family dog, so I think her psyche may be ok. Mine, however…..

  10. First, i am psyched that someone else here has a Mara. “My” Mara is three. Second, poor Sadie! I love the suggestion about giving her room to talk about school and worries. Third, my recurring nightmare is that my contacts are too big to fit in my eyes and I can’t see. Also that my teeth are falling out. Sadie is going to LOVE school. Seriously, if you look up preschool student in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of Sadie. She was born for this and when she goes and totally loves it and bosses those other kids, this dream will go away – until she gets contact lenses.

    • Wait, I don’t have a good analysis for your dream. I gotta think about it…Maybe your vision for your life is bigger than you feel comfortable with. YOu can pay me for that when you see me next. She totally will love it….also, I think maybe she’s not a toddler anymore. Maybe she’s getting mixed messages from me– Oh you’re a toddler and OH you’rea big girl going to school– maybe that’s gumming the system up a bit. Somehow I want to make this my fault. That’s my super power– making stuff my fault.

  11. “Big girl” is the kiss of death…makes them freak or regress.
    Between the kissing hand, extra Mom time, talking about how the day will look (today, broken into pieces and school days, broken into pieces), she’ll calm a bit. If you can stay for the first few days of school, tell her. If not, tell her you’ll walk in with her, read her a book, do the kissing hand, then leave. She needs to know what the beginning and the end of the school day look like. Do you come after snack? After art? At lunch? Give her the milestone and repeat that a lot. Not too much, though. 😉

  12. Oh!! I’m not experienced so no advice from me. I would bet though that you have it figured out. Such a huge change in her little life probably would be really scary. Hope the dreams let up!

  13. I had a recurring dream as a child that only went away about 10 years ago. I’m glad you’re a mom who can comfort her.

  14. I don’t know if this will help, but here’s what we came up with to deal with nightmares:

    A couple of weeks after Christmas last year my then 3-yr old daughter had a nightmare that a giant came into her room, kicked her out of her bed, and said that he was going to sleep there. She slept in our bed nightly for the next 4 months. We tried everything. What finally worked was drawing a picture of a giant with the big red “No” symbol on it on some construction paper. Every night she slept in her own bed she got a sticker, and after 5 stickers she got a small toy from Target. It took her four months to earn her first toy. After that we gradually increased the number of stickers necessary to get a toy, and she eventually had so many stickers she started covering up the giant. Now she often goes a week at a time before remembering to put on her stickers and it’s been quite awhile since I’ve actually had to buy her a toy because she’s growing out of it as her confidence increases. I still miss her in bed some nights.

  15. Great comments! I’m confident Sadie is working something out in her dream and your doing your part by comforting her and loving her through it. I predict you’ll both do great next week and Sadie will adore her new big-girl adventure. I’ll be around to give you a hug, hogging all the tissues as my own girls go back to school.

  16. Pingback: Wait. What’s The Purpose Of PreSchool? | Outlaw Mama

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