Are you familiar with the difference between nightmares and night terrors? I often hear parents claim their child suffers from night terrors, but upon getting additional information, it is clear that what their child is experiencing is a nightmare and not night terrors. It’s important to know the difference between the two, as they have different ways of being managed.
A nightmare is a scary dream that causes your child to wake. These usually occur in the later part of the night while the child is experiencing REM sleep. It is normal for children to start to experience nightmares as they get older, and normal toddler fears begin to surface. They can also occur as a result of a stressful real life situation or event. Your child will likely call out for your presence upon waking as the dream feels very real to them. I encourage you to go to your child when this happens, give them some cuddles, and ensure them they are safe and everything is okay.
If your child has frequent nightmares, try to see if there are underlying stressors or things that are causing your child anxiety during the day. I suggest monitoring their screen time as the content they are viewing could be too mature or inappropriate, thus causing the nightmares. If your family goes through a loss or change that is triggering the nightmares, try to keep their routine (especially bedtime routine) steady and consistent as children thrive on this.
Night Terrors are a type of parasomnia (just like sleep walking/talking and confusional arousals) and tend to be more common with boys rather than girls. The most common age of children affected by these are between 4-8 years of age. The child may display an intense fear, inconsolable crying, and may seem panicked. At times, they will not even know your presence is there and your intervention will prolong the night terror. Night terrors usually occur in the earlier part of the night and occur when the child becomes “stuck” between a deep and a light sleep stage. Because this period of sleep is so deep, it is often hard to wake the child up and even if the child can be woken, they often won’t have a recollection of what had just happened. Their bodies are “awake” but their minds are not.
So what can you do if your child is experiencing night terrors? Usually night terrors are brought on by fragmented sleep, so ensuring your child is getting enough sleep is huge. Move bedtime earlier to start, and if there is a certain activity that your child engages in that you notice is an onset, avoid that activity. Stress can also flare up night terrors. This is when bedtime routines are important. Children thrive on routine and knowing what will happen next. Make bedtime be their safe place. If your child does experience night terrors, let them ride it out. As stressful as it is to watch the night terror take place, intervening will only prolong it. Night terrors aren’t bad for your child’s health and will often go away as the child matures.
A lack of sleep can trigger both night terrors and nightmares - another reason for an early bedtime! Both nightmares and night terrors can run in families; my mom was a sleepwalker, I was a sleepwalker, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my daughters did the same.
Lindsey Hennigar is founder of The Sleep Ranch and a Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant through the Family Sleep Institute. She helps exhausted parents and families get the healthy, restorative sleep they need. Your child can LOVE sleep!