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Nightmares and night terrors

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Nightmares and night terrors are terms which are often used interchangeably when little ones cry in the night, but there is a difference; both in their presentation and in the way they should be handled.


 Why they happen

 Most little ones have nightmares once in a while, but 2 to 4 year-olds are particularly prone; this is an age when normal fears develop and their imagination blossoms.

Many things can cause nightmares, from toilet training to moving to a ‘big bed’, changes in childcare or at school/preschool, or even a new sibling. Your child’s nightmares may even stem from listening to a story that’s scary (even if it doesn’t seem scary to you), watching an upsetting program or film, getting excited or worked up before bed, or feeling anxious or stressed during the day.

Nightmares are part of normal development, as children’s imaginations develop and they begin to understand that there are things that exist that can hurt them. For a child working through their feelings about these stressful events, nightmares are a normal response, so try not to worry too much if your child has the occasional nightmare.

How to know if it’s a nightmare

 If your child wakes up crying or fearful, wants to be comforted and has trouble getting back to sleep, chances are they had a nightmare. These scary episodes usually happen during the second half of the night, when dreaming is most likely to occur. Your child will probably remember their bad dream the next day and may continue to be bothered by it.

Preventing nightmares

 Firstly, minimize overall stress and make sure your child gets enough sleep.

A relaxing and predictable bedtime routine can also help prevent nightmares; try a warm bath, an uplifting story (even one which talks about nightmares) and end with a night-light.

How to help your child after a nightmare

 Go to your child when they cry out. Physical reassurance is important, so hug and comfort your little one until they calm down. If you bring them into your bed be aware you could be creating a habit that’s hard to reverse so it is much better to stay in your child’s room.

Try to understand your child’s fears, don’t dismiss or make fun of them and reassure your child if they are afraid, ensure your little one knows they are safe.

Let your little one tell you about the nightmare if they want to, but don’t press it. At this age, they understand the difference between reality and fantasy, so you can console them by reminding them it was “only a dream.” Be patient if they are still upset, though, we all know the emotions conjured up by nightmares can be very real.

Night terrors

A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare but the presentation can be far more intense. Although night terrors can be upsetting and concerning for parents to witness, they are not usually a cause for concern, unless they are happening regularly.

Why they happen?

Night terrors happen during deep non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Unlike nightmares (which occur during REM sleep) a night terror is not a dream but more like a reaction that happens during the transition from one sleep phase to another. It as if children get ‘stuck’ in between two sleep phases.

Night terrors usually occur about two or three hours after a child falls asleep, when they transition from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. Usually this transition is a smooth one but sometimes a child can become agitated and frightened and that reaction is a night terror. During a night terror a child might suddenly sit up in bed and shout or scream in distress. The child’s breathing might be faster and they may thrash around and be upset. Sometimes children get out of bed and run around and may even have their eyes open. After a few minutes, although it can be longer, a child will calm down and return to sleep. Unlike nightmares, which children often remember, your little one won’t have any memory of a night terror the next morning.

Night terrors are a relatively rare, occurring in around only 3% of children although most children will have the occasional nightmare. Night terrors usually occur between the ages of 3 and 12 and are a little more common among boys.

How to know if it’s a night terror

If your child is incredibly agitated, doesn’t want to be comforted (or perhaps doesn’t even know who is trying to comfort them) and falls ‘back to sleep’ immediately after the episode, chances are they had a night terror. These scary episodes usually happen during the first couple of hours of the night, and your child is unlikely to remember what happened in the morning.

Preventing night terrors

There is no known treatment for night terrors but you can help prevent them by:

  1. Reducing any stress your child may be under
  2. Establishing, and sticking to, a good routine
  3. Making sure your child gets enough rest and sleep to prevent them from becoming overtired

How to help your child during a night terror

Most of the time night terrors disappear on their own but it can be very upsetting for parents who may feel helpless and not able to comfort their child.

The best way to handle a night terror is to stay calm and not wake your child but wait with them and ensure they are safe. Your little one will probably settle down and return to sleep on their own after the night terror.

Understanding night terrors may reduce your worry but if your little one has repeated night terrors, especially if they occur more than once a night, talk to a doctor about whether a referral to a medical sleep specialist is necessary.

As always, if you’re experiencing any problems with your little ones sleep, please do get in touch for a free 15 minute chat – We would love to help!

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