Navigating Nightmares & Night Terrors

Sleep Safety · Toddler Sleep

It’s important to determine whether your child is having a nightmare or a night terror. Night terrors are different from nightmares in both symptoms and experience.

Nightmares are fairly common in children ages 2-4. This is the age when normal fears develop and imaginations expand. Children this age often have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Many things can cause stress, and then nightmares, at this age, from potty training to moving to a big kid bed. A new sibling or changes in childcare can also trigger these. As a child ages, they can continue to be impacted by nightmares (ages 5 – 8) because they are starting to try to comprehend real life dangers such as car accidents or death.

Nightmares are a normal part of development. They often stem from listening to a scary story or watching an upsetting tv show. Even though these things might not seem scary, our young ones can often feel anxious from these things they see.

Nightmares occur during REM sleep, which happens near the end of our sleep period. Because of this, nightmares typically happen during the second half of the night. When children have a nightmare, they will seek comfort after they wake. They are able to recall the nightmare but it can take a while to fall back asleep and get the thoughts out of their mind.

Here are some ways to cut down on nightmares:

  • Have a relaxing and predictable bedtime routine (warm bath, uplifting story, etc.)
  • Don’t play scary games.
  • Avoid scary videos, books, shows prior to bed.
  • Put your child to bed early because overtiredness can increase nightmares.
  • Avoid high-dose vitamins at bedtime.
  • Check with your pediatrician to make sure your child is not on any medications
    that might be interfering with his night sleep.

When your child has a nightmare, respond quickly.  Hugs or back rubs can be very helpful until the child calms down.  If your child wants to talk about the nightmare, that is okay but don’t press the issue.  At this age, your child will understand the difference between reality and fantasy so consoling him by reminding him “it’s only a dream” will be helpful.  Be patience if he is still upset.  It can take him awhile to calm down.

If your child is concerned about monsters under the bed or someone in the closet, calmly show him this is not the case.  Make sure your child has his comfort item and remind him you will be right down the hall if you are needed.  If your child does not have a comfort item, this might be a great time to introduce one.  This can help your child feel more relaxed and secure at bedtime.

Nightmares can cause your child to be scared of the dark.  A small nightlight can be okay.  The SCS Night Light is my favorite as it doesn’t emit any blue light which can inhibit sleep.  Make being in the dark fun.  Play flashlight tag.  Search for things that glow in the dark.  Be creative. Many parents have tried “Monster Spray” however, I’m not a big fan of this.  I find that it can add to the anxiety that there could actually be monsters in your child’s room.  Introducing a “Sleep Spray” or a “Dream Spray” would be much better!  Simply spray a scented water bottle twice in the room before going to bed.  Make sure you stick with only 2 sprays!

Night terrors are very different from nightmares.  Night terrors occur during non-REM sleep and typically occur within 2-3 hours of going to sleep.  Night terrors are not bad dreams.  When your child is having a night terror, there could be sweating or a racing heartbeat.  They may scream and appear anxious.  They typically do not recognize you when you approach them.  This child is often inconsolable.  Night terrors last between 5-15 minutes.  It’s often much more upsetting for the parents than the child because children typically do not remember them.

Night terrors are much more common in boys and they occur in 5% of all children.  They are not a sign of a psychological problem.  They can occur when your child is working on a developmental milestone.  They are hereditary so your child is more likely to have them if either parent has.  The most common cause of night terrors is sleep deprivation or a disturbance in your child’s typical sleep patterns (i.e. a later bedtime, new home, traveling to a new time zone).  Sleep apnea or fevers can also cause night terrors.

Here are some ways to handle night terrors:

  • Monitor your child but avoid interfering as that can worsen the episode
  • Make sure your child is physically safe during the night terror
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule for your child.
  • Put your child to bed earlier.
  • Don’t talk about the terror with your child that night or the next morning

If night terrors are common and happening at a set time each night, try the following:

  • Keep a sleep log to chart your kid’s sleep patterns.
  • Wake your child 15 minutes prior to the time he usually has an episode
  • Do this every night for 7-10 nights and the episodes will likely start to diminish

Night terrors and nightmares, while both disturbing for parents and children, differ greatly in treatment so it’s important to clearly understand the difference.  Once you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll be able to best help your child get a great night of sleep.

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