The younger the child, the more time spent in REM (the dreaming stage of sleep).
In fact, scientists now know that babies even begin to dream in the womb. So chances are, no matter how young your child is, her little brain could potentially conjure up nightmares after dark. It's fascinating to think about what this might look like for infants – dreams of mom taking too long to prep the bottle? A flashback of a much-dreaded tummy time session?
But nightmares commonly become a struggle for kids in the preschool years. By age three, children have very active imaginations, and their minds can run wild after bedtime.
If the boogieman is visiting your house, the key is to try to help your child learn ways to comfort herself independently so that she feels more confident at night. Encourage your child (with a lot of help from mom and dad) to find ways to shake off the nightmare on her own. Sleep experts recommend making a "dream catcher" that hangs near the bed, or telling your child that flipping the pillow over "changes the channel" on the dream. Of course, if she's crying, go to her, but try to settle her back in her own bed to avoid the habit of climbing in with you. During the day, if your child wants to talk about it, you can draw pictures of the bad dreams, crumple them up, and toss them out together.
It's important to know that if your child is screaming in the middle of the night in fear or panic, can't be consoled or woken, and is breathing fast or sweating, she might be having a night terror. This is a separate disturbance from nightmares — they happen in deep sleep (nightmares happen in active REM sleep), and kids will typically not remember anything in the morning. If this is the case, doctors usually recommended that you don't try too hard to wake your child — just stay with them and calmly offer comfort until it passes.