Nightmares and Night Terrors- Everything You Need to Know
Nightmares and Night Terrors are two terms that get mixed up quite a bit in my realm of work. In this blog post, I am going to tell you how they are different, how you can prevent them, and action items for you to take should your child experience them.
If your child wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, you might think they have experienced a night terror. Most of the time this is not the case. Night terrors, unlike nightmares are actually very uncommon, only about 3% of children experience them. Night terrors occur during the deepest state of non-REM sleep, which means your child will have no recollection of having a night terror. When you run into their room to attend to them, they will be unresponsive to comfort since they will still be in a deep sleep. Typically, they will go back to a restful sleep a few minutes after the night terror. They are most common from ages 3-4 but can occur all the way up to age 12. Night terrors are very uncomfortable and troubling to parents, but you can take some comfort in the fact that your child does not remember any of it happening. Night terrors are actually genetic, ask your partner or family members if they were prone to sleepwalking, sleep talking, or night terrors. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do as a parent to “handle” night terrors. Night terrors are triggered by overtiredness, so be proactive in preventing them by making sure your child is getting adequate sleep each night.
Now, let’s talk about nightmares. If your child wakes up screaming or crying and they do respond to your comforting actions, they have experienced a nightmare. Nightmares occur when the brain is sorting through the new experiences of the day. They typically happen several hours after bedtime or in the early morning hours. Your child can start to have nightmares as early as 18 months old, but they are typically more common in children aged 2.5 and up. If your child has a nightmare in the middle of the night, immediately go to them and comfort them. Reassure them that they just had a bad dream and are safe at home. You can hug them, kiss them, turn a night on and discuss what just happened. Say something like “You just had a nightmare, I know that can feel very scary. It’s ok to be scared. But it was just a bad dream, you are safe at home. Now, it’s time to go back to bed. I love you.” The next morning, you can discuss what they had a nightmare about. Have them draw a picture of it or journal about it, and while doing this, you can keep reminding them that nightmares are not real. Reducing screen time before bedtime, shifting bedtime earlier by 15- 30 minutes, and monitoring what your child watches are great ways to try and prevent your child from having nightmares.
At some point in your child’s development, there is a good chance your child will experience nightmares or night terrors. I hope this blog post educated you on how to identify which one you are dealing with as well as helped you understand how to prevent them and handle them when they do happen.