It’s easy to confuse night terrors and nightmares, especially if your child has never experienced either of these scary sleep disturbances. They’re actually quite different from one another. Learn the facts about both and how you can help a child experiencing either night terrors or nightmares.
A night terror is a partial waking from a state of deep sleep. It might be exhibited as agitation, screaming, kicking, thrashing, mumbling, sitting, standing or sleep walking. As scary as these episodes are for a parent, they are emotionally harmless for a child and he or she will almost always return to deep sleep.
Common characteristics of night terrors
- Your child appears frightened, panicked with eyes wide open but cannot be awakened.
- They occur during the first few hours of sleep.
- They usually occur between the age of 18 months and 6 years.
- Episodes may last 10-30 minutes.
- Your child won’t remember the episode the next morning.
- They run in families, so there may be a genetic component involved.
- Overtiredness is often a trigger.
Helping your child during a night terror
- Wait for your child to stop thrashing around, and gently guide him or her back to bed if they are not in it.
- Protect your child against injury due to falls, bumps or thrashing.
- Do not shake, shout, or attempt to wake your child during an episode.
When to contact your child’s pediatrician
- Your child exhibits drooling, jerking or stiffening during an episode.
- Terrors interrupt sleep on a very regular basis.
- Terrors last longer than 30 minutes.
- Your child has daytime fears.
- Your child does something dangerous during an episode.
Night terrors are scary but they are harmless. They do not indicate that something is wrong with your child, but are natural events associated with normal sleep development during childhood. Eventually, your child will outgrow them. You can help prevent them by maintaining a regular nap and bedtime schedule and by not allowing your child to get to an overtired state.
Nightmares are bad or scary dreams that awaken a child. The child is usually afraid to go back to sleep. Children have nightmares about realistic dangers and/or imaginary fears, and their fears usually relate to their developmental stage. Toddlers can awaken afraid of a separation from their parents; preschoolers have nightmares about monsters, snakes and spiders; and school-aged children may have nightmares about real dangers or death.
Common characteristics of nightmares
- They occur during the second half of the night (during REM sleep).
- They are very common.
- Children can recall the details of the bad dream.
- Children will awaken afraid, tearful and often have difficulty falling back to sleep.
- Children want and need to be comforted to get back to sleep.
- By about age 7, kids begin to comprehend that nightmares are bad dreams and not reality.
Helpful tips for parents when your child has nightmares
- Reassure your child that it’s just a bad dream and that everything is OK. Cuddle and comfort your child.
- Leave your child’s bedroom door open when he or she attempts to go back to sleep.
- Don’t dismiss or downplay your child’s worries if he or she wants to talk about the nightmare the next day.
- If your child forgets about a nightmare, don’t raise the topic.
- If your child dreams about the same thing repeatedly, evaluate possible sources of fear (stress, frightening movies or TV shows, encounters with insects and animals, etc.)
Consulting your pediatrician
Occasional nightmares are normal and not a sign of emotional disturbance. Children with a vivid sense of imagination tend to have nightmares. If your child experiences a traumatic event, or has a high level of daytime anxiety with recurrent nightmares, it’s best to seek professional advice.