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Parents and children have long sought ways to “change the channel” on nightmares and sleep better at night. Preliminary research using a psychological strategy and a device that looks like a TV remote control shows we may be able to do just that.
The new study from Flinders University in Australia tested if children ages 3 to 10 could turn off their bad dreams by pressing a button on a small device called a “Dream Changer.”
Results showed that children’s nightmares decreased from 3.4 to 1.6 per week. Kids also had fewer nightmares and less sleep anxiety three months into use.
With nightmare-prevention tech as varied as the Food and Drug Administration-approved PTSD device NightWare and simple night lights already on the market, the study could lead to additional research and actionable tips for parents. Nightmares affect about half of children ages 3 to 6 and about 20% of those ages 6 to 12.
What is this device that can potentially stop nightmares? The Dream Changer is a small, skinny, single-button stick that researchers say was developed in the United States. It does not appear to be available for purchase.
According to a YouTube video narrated by Flinders University professor Michael Gradisar, the intent was for the 56 children in the study to press the device’s button and “wave it around” when they awoke from a nightmare.
Parents in the study told their children to think about good dreams they wanted to have when they went to bed and to use the device when they had bad dreams. The study found that this psychological strategy helped the children have fewer nightmares and less sleep anxiety, leading to better sleep. Children of these ages need nine to 13 hours of sleep per night.
Researchers say that there are two possible reasons why the Dream Changer helps with nightmares and sleep anxiety:
The approach is similar to imagery rehearsal therapy, which the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has established to be a best practice for reducing nightmares in adults. Imagery rehearsal therapy is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which traces depression, anxiety, insomnia (CBT-I), and other psychological issues to unhelpful ways of thinking and behavioral patterns. It suggests using coping strategies to address the patterns.
The results of a 2017 study demonstrated that combining CBT with parent-involved play also helped kids have fewer nightmares. Children in this study used their imagination to reframe their thoughts about sleep, reducing nighttime fears. They also did not ask to sleep in their parents’ beds as much.
Similarly, a 2012 study from Tel Aviv University explored psychological strategies using stuffed animals to help children reduce nighttime fears. Researchers found that children had fewer fears and sleep problems after sleeping with a stuffed animal for one month.
Each study looked at how children could reframe disruptive thoughts and emotions that prevent them from sleeping. The children could feel more in control of something that scared them and ultimately sleep better.
Wendy Troxel, a licensed clinical psychologist and sleep expert, says that parents can practice a “low-tech” version of the Dream Changer’s technique by reassuring their kids before bed, as she did with her children when they were younger.
“By promoting positive feelings prior to bedtime, this can reduce fears of sleep and avoidance of going to bed, which can be very difficult for both parents and children,” Troxel says.
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