Handling Nightmares and Night Terrors
As your child’s mind develops they might start having night terrors or nightmares. Often these can be more distressing for the parent than the child, who has usually forgotten all about it by morning, if they were aware of it at the time.
People often get confused between nightmares and night terrors but actually they are easy to tell apart and your child will only be aware of, or become distressed by, nightmares.
Nightmares usually happen in the second half of the night when your child is in REM (or dream) sleep. Some children start getting nightmares at the age of 2 but they are most common between three and 6 years of age when it’s not uncommon for a child to have a nightmare a week.
Anyone who has had a nightmare can tell you that they are usually about being chased by someone or something or being stuck somewhere. You will also know that it is very hard to go back to sleep without starting where you left off.
Nightmares are perfectly normal and present a healthy way for children (and adults) to deal with the stresses and uncertainties of daily life. If your child has a nightmare they are likely to call out to you, or come to you in distress. Give tem a cuddle, listen to them, reassure and, if needed, stay with them until they are calm. It’s not a good idea to re-stimulate their imagination by encouraging them to reenter their dream and until they are around 5 your child won’t know the difference between reality and dreams so a rational explanation is unlikely to offer comfort to them.
If you child has a recurrent dream, try discussing it with them the next day and reassure them of a happy ending (for example, where mummy and daddy always come and rescue them).
Night terrors are different to nightmares in that your child will probably not be aware that they are having one and won’t be woken up by the episode. They happen when your child is in deep sleep and is, understandably, distressing to parents.
Night terrors usually happen in deep sleep, in the earlier part of the night. As a general rule, if your child ‘wakes up’ within 2 hours of going to sleep it’s a night terror. A child having a night terror will suddenly wake up, with wide open eyes and may start screaming, sweating, thrashing around in bed, moaning or running around anxiously.
Some children just have night terrors for no apparent reason. Other causes include:
- Overtiredness. If your child is desperate for sleep they are more likely to have night terrors because they need deep sleep so much. A good routine and regular naps (where needed) can help.
- Development; as you know, your baby’s mind and body are changing constantly. Young children sleep very deeply which makes them more likely to have night terrors. As their sleep cycle develops your child is likely to grow out of night terrors (by around the age of 5 or 6).
- Stimulants such as food or drink that contains caffeine or sugar can make night terrors worse. Avoiding food such as this before bedtime can help.
- Stress; although this is a word not often associated with young children, family stress can have an impact on them. If things at home are stressful and the night terrors seem to have coincided with this it is worth addressing that issue separately.
What you can do
If your child suffers from night terrors the best thing is to wait for it to finish and, if necessary, gently guide your child back to bed. A night terror will rarely last more than a minute or so and your child won’t benefit from being woken up in this state so you can comfort them.
If your child regularly suffers from night terrors you can try stirring them (but not making them fully) earlier in the night, a couple of hours after bedtime. This can interrupt their deep sleep and break the cycle.
Whilst night terrors and nightmares are very different, they do have one thing in common; your child will outgrow them eventually! Try to stay calm but, as always, if it becomes a persistent problem or you become worried speak to a health professional.
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