Nightmares and night terrors are two of the most common causes of sleep disturbance in children. Parents often get them confused but it’s important to know the difference so they can be managed if they occur.
What are nightmares?
Nightmares are bad dreams that occur in the middle of the night or early morning. This is when Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or Dream Sleep usually happens. During a nightmare your child may wake up crying because they are scared and have trouble falling back to sleep.
Nightmares are often related to worries your child may have and usually disappear if you work through the issues together. Your child will most likely remember that they had a nightmare when they wake up in the morning.
If your child does have a nightmare remind your child that everyone has bad dreams sometimes but they are not real. Then help your little one relax again by giving them their favorite comforter to hold, a big cuddle and even a small drink of water.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors (which interestingly are often hereditary) usually take place in the early part of the night, about 2 to 3 hours after falling asleep. This is when your child is moving from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep into lighter REM sleep.
During a night terror, your child may suddenly sit up in bed and scream. It may look like they’re awake but they are not. They will be confused, disoriented, and inconsolable, and totally unaware of your presence.
Don’t try to wake your child during a night terror as it may take longer to calm them down and get them back to sleep. After about 5 to 25 minutes your child will start to calm down and will not remember anything the next morning. It’s important to make sure they are safe and not going to hurt themselves on furniture, toys or stairs.
Can you prevent nightmares and night terrors?
Nightmares and night terrors cannot be prevented, however, there are some things you can do to reduce the likelihood of them occurring.
- Have a regular bedtime and wake-up time.
- Create a relaxing sleep routine. A warm bath, a cuddle, or a bedtime story will help your child feel safe and secure.
- Avoid scary television shows and stories before bed.
- Let your child sleep with their favourite comforter.
- Install a nightlight.
- Keep your door open so they know that you are nearby if they need a hug.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
- Create a simple bedtime routine that’s stress-free and calming.
- Reduce your child’s stress as much as possible.
- Limit the amount of activities they do during the day so they don’t become overtired.
- Make sure your child gets enough sleep.
- Don’t let your child stay up too late.
- Talk to your child regularly about any fears or worries they may have.
If your child is prone to nightmares or night terrors, don’t get into the habit of letting your child sleep in your bed when they are scared. This will create dependency issues and prevent your child from developing coping skills. It’s much better to go to their room to offer comfort, that way you’re not introducing a new habit or creating fear around their room (if they get taken out of their room anytime they get scared they’re unlikely to want to go back there).
Nightmares and night terrors rarely have long-lasting psychological effects. However, if your child’s nightmares or night terrors are occurring frequently and causing you concern, it may be time to speak to a pediatrician or a sleep specialist.