Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children: What Can You Do? 4

night terrors in children

No parent likes being woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of their child crying, especially when those tears are a result of fear. However, almost all children have nightmares occasionally, while only a rare 5 percent have night terrors. Understanding what causes nightmares and night terrors in children can help prevent or at least lessen their occurrence.

The first step is to identify which nighttime bane is causing your child to wake up crying, this means understanding the difference between a nightmares and night terrors in children.

Nightmares in children:

-Occur later in the night once dreaming has begun.
-Will be remembered the next day by your child.
-Cause fear and/or clinginess immediately afterwards.
-Makes going back to sleep difficult.

Causes of nightmares in children are external influences such as:

-Scary movies, stories, or images before bed.
-Separation anxiety.
-Other mental stressors

Night terrors in children:

-Occur earlier in the night.
-Will not be remembered at all by your child.
-Will cause your child to scream, yell, cry, whimper, flail, and/or sit up in bed without being responsive as he/she is actually still asleep.
-May cause physical symptoms such as sweating and rapid heart beat and breathing.
-Will end abruptly with your child going back to sleep soundly as if nothing ever happened.

Causes of night terrors in children are unknown but may include:

-Sleep disturbances such as sleep apnea
-Erratic sleep schedules
-Sleep deprivation
-Genetic predisposition

What you can do to help childhood nightmares:

When a nightmare occurs go to your child and offer comfort. Physical comfort is especially helpful, stroke his/her back, run your fingers through his/her hair, etc. You can try to explain that it was only a dream, but keep in mind that younger children, such as toddlers, may not understand what this means as realty and fantasy are still a bit fuzzy at this age. It will help to talk about the dream and let your child attempt to express their fear.

You can prevent nightmares by keeping a good bed time routine and by being careful to avoid things that may prompt nightmares such as scary movies. If your child does experience a nightmare don’t feel bad, it is likely nothing you personally did wrong these things are just a fact of childhood.

What you can do to help night terrors in children:

Unlike a nightmare, a child in the middle of a night terror should not be comforted or even touched unless he/she is about to be hurt (ex/ hitting head on headboard.). This is because your child is not actually awake, attempts to comfort him or her may result in disorientation and an even more frantic and fearful result. While I know it may be hard to listen to your child cry out, as my own children  frequently had night terrors in their toddler years, it is better to stand by offering comfort in calm words waiting for the night terror to subside.

As to what causes night terrors in children, no one really knows for sure, and there is not really any way to prevent them. You can ensure your child has a set bed time schedule and try to make sure they get ample sleep for their age. You may also speak to your pediatrician to be sure a physical condition such as sleep apnea is not causing the problem. Some children outgrow night terrors, mine did, though the condition does occur in adults.

You may also find helpful:
Helping Kids Beat a Fear of the Dark

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4 thoughts on “Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children: What Can You Do?

  • Amy

    Can they start having them as early as 12-13 months? When it happens my son usually “wakes up” abrubtly and crying like he’s scared or hurt. He’s sitting in his crip holding his blanket and when I pick him up he screams even louder. He’s does not calm down until I start talking to him. I nurse him then he goes back to sleep like it was nothing. I’m beginning to think maybe he’s having night terrors.

    • unwirklich admin

      I’m not a doctor, of course, but I am fairly sure one of my sons started having them at about 8 months, so yes, I think night terrors are possible in infants. With a night terror, the first thing you’ll notice is it doesn’t seem like your baby is actually awake, just screaming, possibly with eyes open staring off into nowhere. If he’s responsive, you could be dealing with just nightmares, which babies do have (they dream even in the womb some research shows) sadly it’s really hard to deal with nightmares/terrors in kids that young because its so hard to single out what’s causing them. You may try music while he sleeps or white noise, for many, that will redirect thoughts so to speak and can help with nightmares at the least. 🙂 Good luck, I’ve been there, not fun stuff.

    • Brenda T

      Amy my son started having night terrors in January of this year and he was 9 months old. Thankfully he doesn’t have them too often (4 since Jan); same thing though screaming as if he’s scared or hurt, can’t get him to look at me (eyes half open/sometimes closed) and can last up to 30 minutes for us. It’s so hard to see him like that when there’s nothing I can do, I just hold him and reassure him that I’m here and he’s safe. I always try and strip him down as sometimes the drop in body temperature can help get rid of them quicker. They stop as quick as they start, all the sudden he will look at me totally lucid and like nothing happened.

  • John Yang

    I am a dad, not a mom. I really dislike posting something on internet, but this might be of help to some parents. My 5 years old son had had night terror for over two years, if no longer. I checked his US doctor and got nothing helpful. My wife contacted her high school classmate who is a children doctor in china. He said my son needs calcium (Ca) supplement, i.e. he is lack of Ca. we had not given him Ca since we came to the US over two years ago. He got up (sat up) crying around 12:00am, every night.
    I went Walmart and found no Calcium for children under 9. I purchase one liquid Calcium for age 9 and up. we give him a half teaspoon at breakfast. it stopped his nigh terror on the second day and on.
    Good luck. John Yang from Overland Park KS