December 1, 2016

Night terror or nightmare?

It's the middle of the night. You're woken by your child's crying. While it could be a number of things, two possibilities include night terrors or nightmares.

How will you know what's going on, and more importantly what can you do to help your child?


Nightmares occur during the dreamy portion of our sleep cycles — or REM sleep. And as we all know, they are bad dreams. Often they can stem from something we experienced or even imagined and are filled with stressful events and maybe even a monster or two. While we can't predict when nightmares will occur, they can be brought on by stress, scary books or movies, or traumatic events. After having a nightmare, your child might wake up crying, frightened and may be the reason she or he shows up next to your bed at 2 a.m. If your child is young — three or four years old — holding and cuddling can be a great source of comfort.

If your child is older, talking about the dream can help. The next day, your child might want to talk about the nightmare. Ask what they remember and encourage them to write about or draw their nightmare but with an alternative ending for their dream that is not as scary.

Good sleep habits can help prevent nightmares

While having a bedtime routine is important for quality sleep, it can also help prevent nightmares. If you don't already have a routine established, a few strategies to try include:

  • Creating a bedtime routine that is calming, such as reading stories together before bed

  • Making sure your child goes to bed at the same time each night and wakes up at the same time each morning

  • Limiting the amount of stress in your child's life

  • Avoiding scary movies or reading scary books before bed

  • Keeping the bedroom an electronic device-free zone — no tablets, phones or even televisions in the room

Night terrors

Night terrors can be upsetting for parents because often a child experiencing one will look terrified and may even be screaming. There are also physical signs of distress like a fast heart rate or lots of sweat. And it's hard to believe the child is still asleep, especially since his or her eyes may even be open. While it's natural to want to try and calm them, the reality is that they will be completely unresponsive. And that's because they are actually still asleep.

Night terrors occur in a different part of the sleep cycle than nightmares do. Night terrors are associated with your deep sleep or slow wave sleep which occurs more in the first several hours of sleep. Night terrors are actually related to other sleep disturbances like sleepwalking and some children who had night terrors as a preschooler can be more likely to have sleepwalking in later grade school years. Night terrors typically last only a few minutes, but it's important to remember to not wake your child or even try to restrain them as it could just make the terrors worse. The best thing you can do is to stay calm and keep your child safe as they thrash or walk around. And while it may be tempting, don't talk about the night terror the next day. While it may be fresh in your memory, your child won't remember and may even become upset by it.

Night terrors often start around the age of 4, and may only occur for a short period of time. Having a regular sleep schedule and ensuring your child gets enough sleep routinely can help. While occasional night terrors are common, if you're concerned about the duration or frequency talk with your child's pediatrician.

How much sleep do kids need?

As a reminder, getting enough sleep is very important. Children from ages 3-5 years old often need around 10-13 hours of sleep with 11-12 hours of sleep being most common. For children in early grade school from ages 6-8 years of age, 10-12 hours of sleep is usually recommended. For older children, 9-10 hours of sleep is recommended. The signs that your child is not getting enough sleep can include irritability, trouble concentrating, difficulty awakening in the morning, frequent headaches.