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Children's Nightmares Vs Night Terrors

by Kids on Track (follow)
Ariella Lew; BSC Paediatric Nurse
Parenting Tips (83)     
What can do you to help?

When a child suddenly becomes scared to go to sleep at night, parents naturally wonder what is causing it.

There are two totally different, but equally scary nocturnal phenomenon's that are commonly seen in children. Here is how to understand the difference between the two:


What are they?

These are bad dreams that can leave children feeling scared or distressed. They consist of images that represent real (someone dying) or imagined (monsters under the bed) dangers and fears.

Why do they occur?

Nightmares are most often seen in people who have good imaginations. If they are recurrent, they may be symptomatic of a stressor in the child's environment that they are unable to cope with. It is the brain's way of sifting through and dealing with unprocessed worries that may be there. Nightmares can also be caused by some medications.

When do they occur?

In general, children younger than 2 do not get nightmares. Between the ages of 3 and 6, children are the most frightened by the nightmares. These dreams occur in the second half of the night towards the end of their sleep.

How should I deal with them?

Your child will only want you for reassurance, and if the nightmare has woken them from sleep, they may take some time to settle. Acknowledge that their fears are real, but remind them it was only a dream and reassure them that all is well. If they are older than 4, they can begin to understand the difference between real and imagined, so it is worth explaining both concepts to them. Avoid the triggers that you suspect may be causing nightmares, such as certain movies. Adapt their bedtime routine if nightmares are recurrent to include reassurances such as doors open and nightlights on. Make sure your child has a chance each day to talk about their worries.


What are they?

A night terror is an episode of extreme agitation that occurs during a child's sleep. They affect approximately 15% of children (more common in boys) and can occassionally occur in adults too.

There are no mental images and so children have no recollection in the morning. For parents, it can be scary as children look like they are awake, but they are actually fast asleep. Night terrors can cause children to shout out / sit up / thrash around or appear distressed.

Why do they happen?

They are a reaction to the fear of transitioning from one sleep stage to the next. In other words, they are stuck between being awake and asleep. A night terror is rarely a reaction to an external factor, such as medication, sleep apnoea or stress and is more often a part of their brain maturing.

When do they occur?

Night terrors are most common in children aged between 4 and 12, although there have been reports in children as young as 18 months. They occur when children are in a very deep sleep and so usually this is 2-3 hours after going to sleep. Some children will only experience this once and for others, it may continue until the brain develops its capacity to transition between stages of sleep.

How should I deal with them?

Don't try to wake your child as they will be very disorientated and it will take them a long time to resettle. Rather, just ensure their safety and gently sit and reassure that everything is ok. Try to prevent your child being overtired as this is a trigger.

Although night terrors are not caused by stress, it is advisable to minimise external factors such as starting something new, for example, toilet training which may increase the frequency of the episodes.

Read How To Deal With Your Child's Night Terrors
Read Constipation In Babies And Young Children
Read Bedtime Battles
Read My Epic Sleep Deprivation Blunder

#Parenting Tips

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