Recently, a few parents have contacted me wanting to know if their child was experiencing a nightmare or a night terror. Although both can be disruptive and upsetting to the child and their
parents, there a distinct differences between the two. Here are a few tips to help you recognize and respond to either one.
Nightmares are very common and are a normal part of development, especially around two to three years of age. They typically occur during REM sleep or near the end of your child’s sleep period. When children have a nightmare, they will wake up feeling anxious or afraid and will often call or seek you out for comfort and security. They will be able to recall the nightmare and will often have trouble going back to sleep without your assistance. Nightmares often occur when a child is overtired or has recently experienced some sort of stress of trauma. However, bad dreams can happen even if your child is well rested and happy.
To help prevent your little one from having a nightmare, make sure they are getting enough sleep. To find suggested sleep averages based on your child’s age, read my blog post How Much Sleep Does Your Child Need . Also, implementing calm, soothing bedtime routine each night can help set the stage for peaceful sleep. Avoid any scary stories, games or TV shows before bed, especially since children between the ages of 2-3 have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy. Also, avoid having your child take high-dose vitamins at bedtime and check with your doctor if you feel the prescription medication your child is taking may be interfering with his/her sleep.
If your child does have a nightmare, respond quickly and lovingly assure them that they are safe. Comfort and stay with them until they are asleep. Guided imagery is a great tool to use with children to help replace the scary thoughts with more pleasant, soothing ones.
Night terrors are different than nightmares and can be more upsetting for the parent than they are for the child. Night terrors occur during NON-REM sleep and usually happen within 2 hours of falling asleep. During a night terror, the child is often inconsolable and may appear very anxious or frightened. In fact, they may not recognize you and even push you away. These episodes usually last between 5-15 minutes. More than likely, the child does not remember the night terror the next morning.
The main cause of night terrors is sleep deprivation. Again, read my blog post How Much Sleep Does Your Child Need, to see the recommended amount of sleep your child should be getting based on their age. Making sure your child is getting enough rest is key in preventing night terrors from happening. However, other causes are sleep apnea, illness, developmental milestones or changes in the child’s sleep schedule. It is important to note that night terrors are NOT a sign that your child has some sort of psychological problem. Children are more likely to have night terrors if either parent had them as a child and they tend to be more common in boys.
If your child is having a night terror, monitor their safety but do NOT intervene but trying to hold them or pick them up. This may only make the episode last longer and be more upsetting to your child. Remember, they are not having a bad dream and are not actually awake during the terror. Also, do not talk about it with your child the next morning.
If your child is experiencing night terrors 2-3 times a week, start keeping a sleep log to identify a pattern of when the episodes occur. Then, start waking your child 15 minutes before the night terror typically occurs. Don’t wake them completely but gently arouse them enough that they move or roll over and go back to sleep. This will help break the sleep cycle pattern leading up to the night terror. Do this for 7-10 nights in a row. Check with your doctor if you suspect an illness or sleep apnea is the cause of your child’s night terrors.
I hope these tips will help you to recognize the difference and know how to respond if your child experiences either of these nighttime disruptions. I wish you and your family peaceful nights and pleasant dreams!
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