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

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 to blame. This means understanding the difference between a nightmares and night terrors in children.

Nightmares in children:

night terrors 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’s 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’s better to stand by waiting for the night terror to subside.

As to what causes night terrors in children, no one really knows for sure, and there’s 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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