Watching your child wake in the middle of the night screaming and crying from a nightmare is hard to do. We want to be able to calm our child down and reassure them that everything’s OK. But often times, what your child may be experiencing isn’t a nightmare, but a night terror. Many of my Clients confuse night terrors and nightmares, and then in turn don’t know how to respond and avoid them from happening again. It’s important to know what causes a nightmare and night terror, and how to respond to your child for each scenario.
Nightmares occur when your child is dreaming in REM sleep, which happens at the end of the sleep cycle. These often start happening between the ages of 2-5 when their imagination starts growing, and they are learning the difference between what’s real and what’s not. When your child is having a nightmare they will call for you, and seek for your comfort. They will be awake and able to communicate what is bothering them, and the following morning they can continue expressing their feelings about what happened the night before. It may take some time to comfort them in the middle of the night, but eventually with some reassurance they will calm down. Nightmares are very common and are apart of a child’s development. Of course, nightmares are more common after a scary situation or if your child has recently gone through a tough situation.
Make sure to:
- Avoid TV and screens 1 hour before bedtime.
- Avoid scary shows, videos, games, and books.
- Respond to your child when she’s having a nightmare, quickly and reassure her.
- Have your child get enough sleep, as being overtired can increase nightmares.
Unlike nightmares, when your child is experiencing a night terror she will not be aware or conscious of it, nor will she remember it the next day. Night terrors occur during NON-REM sleep (coming out of the deep part of sleep), usually within 2 hours of her falling asleep. Night terrors are NOT nightmares; they are not bad dreams and do not occur during the “dream part of sleep.” It is mainly your child getting “stuck” transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next. Night terrors also sometimes occur during a developmental leap. They are more common in boys, and occur in 5% of all children.
Here your child will also scream or cry out and appear a little anxious. However in this case, your child is often inconsolable. Whatever you try to do to calm your child down just doesn’t work; she doesn’t seem to be responding to your voice or hugs. A night terror usually doesn’t last more than about 15 minutes. The good thing is your child will not remember this the next morning. Ideally, since your child isn’t really awake, you are to leave your child be and let her transition to the next sleep cycle on her own. Often interfering can cause more harm, so just monitor her from afar making sure she’s safe through the episode and not getting hurt (i.e. falling out of bed).
Make sure to:
- Keep your child on a regular sleep schedule, as lack of sleep can cause night terrors.
- Allow for an earlier bedtime (even if by only 30 minutes) so your child can catch up on sleep.
- Avoid screens 1 hour before bedtime.
- If your child is having consistent night terrors, keep a log to see if there’s a pattern.
- If there’s a pattern to your child’s night terrors (always happening at the same time each night), you can wake her briefly 15 minutes before the time of night terror, in order to help her transition to the sleep cycle without experiencing a night terror.
As you can see night terrors and nightmares are very different, and require different responses. It’s important to understand the difference and be able to identify them in your children.