Child Night Terrors vs. Nightmares – How To Recognise Them And Help

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If you’ve had a child go through the night terrors you will know they are quite horrific to watch, especially because you’re helpless to do anything to help.

The night terrors are very different to nightmares, and both can be scary for your child and for you, but for different reasons.  We have some tips to help you identify them and what to do.

child night terrors

What is a night terror?

According to the Raising Children Network website a night terror is when your child suddenly becomes very agitated while in a state of deep sleep. Kids having night terrors might sit or stand up, shake, cry, scream or move around all while they are still sound asleep.

Facts about night terrors:

  • They can last for up to 40 minutes and children look extremely panicked and their eyes might be open.
  • They usually affect kids aged between 18 months and six years and as children develop more mature forms of deep sleep they grow out of them.
  • Parents will find their child is inconsolable and won’t respond to any soothing or comforting they offer.
  • They happen during the first few hours of sleep during deep sleep and are less common than nightmares.
  • While children might be thrashing about and moving they are actually in a state of deep sleep.
  • They are scary for parents but they don’t hurt or scare your child and they won’t remember them in the morning.
  • Night terrors can run in families, so there might be a genetic component involved.
  • They are natural events associated with the normal development of sleep in children.

What to do if your child has night terrors:

1. Avoid waking your child during a night terror as they will only be confused and disorientated if woken, and they might take longer to settle.

2. Wait for your child to stop thrashing around and guide them back to bed if they’re out of it.

3. If you think he or she might get hurt, stay close to guide her away from hitting or bumping the sides of the cot, bed or other obstacles.

4. Don’t stress about night terrors, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your child.

5. Managing nightmares is quite a different ball game than dealing with the night terrors because a child who’s had a nightmare often wakes up and remembers it, and gets upset.

How To Get Your Kids To Sleep

What is a nightmare?

Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause kids of all ages to wake in fear and distress. They might have nightmares about a realistic danger, such as aggressive dogs, sharks or spiders or imaginary fears, such as monsters.

Facts about nightmares:

  • They tend to happen in the second half of the night, during phases of REM sleep and are very common.
  • Depending on their language ability, children can often recall the content of a bad dream in detail.
  • Some younger children might find it hard to get back to sleep after a nightmare.
  • Children often wake tearful and upset after a nightmare and they will want comfort from you.
  • As kids get older, they’ll get better at understanding that a dream is just a dream, and by the age of seven might be able to deal with nightmares without calling you for comfort.

What to do if your child has a nightmare:

1. Explain to your child that it was just a bad dream and reassure them verbally that everything is okay and safe and give them a kiss and a cuddle to help them settle.

2. If your preschool-age child has dreamed about monsters, you could try explaining that monsters are only make-believe and explain that made-up things might be scary, but they can’t really hurt children.

3. Avoid making fun of the nightmare or saying your child is silly for worrying because nightmares can seem very real to little kids.

4. If you child talks about a nightmare the next day listen to your child’s worries and don’t dismiss or downplay them.

5. For those kids who seem to have forgotten about a nightmare it’s wise not to raise the topic.

Tip: If a child is dreaming about the same or similar things over and over again explore sources of stress or fright in your child’s day and ask about encounters with other kids, TV shows or other experiences.

Just keep in mind that the occasional nightmare isn’t a sign of emotional disturbance and need not be cause for concern. In fact, nightmares are often the product of a vivid imagination.

But if your child is having a recurrent nightmare, or the content of the dream is particularly disturbing, he might be experiencing some kind of stress during the day.

Trauma can also cause nightmares. If a child has experienced some type of trauma, she might have nightmares about it for several weeks or months afterwards.

Getting help

It can be a good idea to seek professional advice if your child is experiencing nightmares together with high levels of anxiety during the day. Also seek help if nightmares are part of your child’s response to a traumatic event.

Similarly if your child has night terrors that seem prolonged or violent, seek professional advice. If night terrors are occurring along with other sleeping difficulties – or your child also has breathing problems, such as snoring – talk with your doctor about an ear, nose and throat assessment.

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