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Is it a Nightmare or a Night Terror?

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I attend lots of baby classes where I answer sleep queries from parents struggling with their little ones sleep. Quite often the topic of nightmares and night terrors comes up and I think it is important to understand what may be happening and how to deal with a nightmare or a night terror.

Nightmares and night terrors are something that lots of parents worry about happening to their little one. The two terms are used interchangeably but there is a difference; both in the way they should be handled and how they present themselves.


What is a nightmare?

Nightmares are common in children ages 2-4 years old simply as this is an age that their imaginations start to take a hold and they become to understand fear but understand that they are a part of normal development.

They can occur when a child is dealing with any change big or is dealing with stress i.e. toilet training or maybe moving to a ‘big bed’, or it could be changes in childcare or school. They can even occur through being overtired or after a long day.

Nightmares are a normal response to working through any changes, so try not to worry too much if your child has a nightmare.

How a nightmare is presented.

If your child wakes up crying or scared and wants to be comforted in order to get back to sleep or if they are struggling to get back to sleep through fear, chances are they had a nightmare. They tend to occur during the second half of the night, in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep when dreaming is most likely to occur. Your child will probably remember their bad dream the next day and may want to talk about it.

Can you prevent nightmares?

You cannot prevent them from happening entirely but there are some things you can do to help settle them before bed.

  • A predictable bedtime routine can help (see bedtime routine here) that occurs in the same order.
  • Including a bath, some meditation to calm their nervous system and a bedtime story. (meditation resources can be found on Relax Kids website here.)
  • You can use a night light so long as it is out of their line of sight and it is on consistently throughout the night.

Try to ensure your child gets the right amount of sleep for their age.

What can I do when my child has a nightmare?

Go to your child and give them cuddles. Physical reassurance is important, and hugs and comfort will help your little one calm down.

Talk through your child’s fears and try to relate to a time you may have had a nightmare (without detail) but do press the fact that it is only a dream. Doing this will reassure your child that this is normal, all will be okay and that they are safe.

Night Terrors

I did not fully understand night terrors until I started my sleep training and so it is no surprise that I talk to people who think their child has had a nightmare but on further discussion have explained about night terrors and it has all started to make more sense to the parent.

Night terrors are sleep disruptions that may seem similar to nightmares but are presented in a different way. It can be quite concerning for parents and carers to witness their little one having a night terror but they are not usually a cause for concern, unless they are happening regularly.

Night terrors are quite rare and occur in around 3% of children although most children will have the occasional nightmare. Night terrors usually occur between the ages of 3 and 12 and are a little more common among boys.

Why they happen?

Night terrors traditionally happen towards the end of a child’s initial deep sleep (non-REM) so are likely to occur 2-3 hours after the child has gone to bed (the opposite to nightmares).  They tend to occur during the transition from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. Usually this transition is a smooth one but sometimes a child can become agitated and frightened and that reaction is a night terror.

How is a night terror presented?

A child might suddenly sit up in bed and shout or scream. The child’s breathing may become fast and they may be sweaty and present as being upset and scared. Your little one may even get out of bed and run around and may even have their eyes open and cry. Night terrors tend to last a few minutes but can be a little longer before they calm and return to sleep. Children will often recall their nightmares but they won’t have any memory of a night terror in the morning.

How to know if it’s a night terror

If your child is incredibly agitated, doesn’t want to be comforted (or perhaps doesn’t even know who is trying to comfort them) and falls ‘back to sleep’ immediately after the episode, chances are they had a night terror. These scary episodes usually happen during the first couple of hours of the night, and your child is unlikely to remember what happened in the morning.

Can you prevent a night terror?

Again sadly not, but similarly to a nightmare you can help to prevent them.

  • A predictable bedtime routine can help (see bedtime routine here) that occurs in the same order.
  • Include a bath, some meditative breathing techniques to calm their nervous system and a bedtime story. Relax Kids website has some resources here.
  • Ensure your child gets the right amount of sleep for their age.

What can I do when my child has a night terror?

The best thing you can do is be calm as it can be an upsetting episode to watch your little one suddenly go from calm and sleeping to what seems like scared and screaming but most of the time night terrors disappear on their own.

Do not wake your child, just be present to make sure they are safe. Your little one will probably settle down and return to sleep on their own after the night terror.

Do not worry and hopefully this blog has stemmed your concerns but if your little one has repeat night terrors that occur more than once a night, talk to a doctor about whether a referral to a medical sleep specialist is necessary.

If you are struggling with sleep for your little one or would like further advice for their sleep  please get in touch. The sleep plan includes a bedtime routine bespoke to them to help your little one settle into sleep.  Book a free, no obligation call and we can talk about working together to get you a better night’s sleep.

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