Night terrors or a nightmare? Child sleep issues explained

By Kate, 19th September 2018

You’ve probably heard both terms night terrors and nightmare, but most people don’t truly know the difference between them. I thought it would be good to shed some light on this and hopefully put your mind at ease if you are worrying about your child’s sleep.

What are night terrors?

A night terror is a partial waking from sleep with behaviours such as screaming, kicking, panic, sleepwalking and thrashing. They are harmless. Each episode will end with your child going back into a deep sleep.

Night terrors are more common in children with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking behaviour. They are also extremely common in children who are overtired. Occasionally they can also be caused by anxiety, fever or even a medication your child might be taking.

The following are common signs of a night terror:

  • Your child is clearly scared but cannot be woken up or comforted.
  • Their eyes are wide open but they don’t know that you are there.
  • It can last from 5 to 30 minutes.
  • They often don’t remember it happened in the morning.

How to help your child?

  • Try to help your child return to normal sleep. Do not try to wake them up. Stay calm.
  • You can gently hold your child if it seems to help them feel better.
  • Protect your child against injury. During a night terror, a child can fall down a stairway or run into something. Try to gently guide your child back to bed.
  • Preventing over tiredness. Be sure your child goes to bed at a regular time, and early enough to ensure they are getting enough sleep.

When to call a doctor

While night terrors are not harmful, they can resemble other conditions or lead to problems for the child. Consult your child’s doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • The child is drooling, jerking, or stiffening
  • Terrors are interrupting sleep regularly
  • Terrors last longer than 30 minutes
  • Your child does something dangerous during this time
  • Other symptoms occur with the night terrors
  • Your child has daytime fears
  • You feel other stresses may be a factor
  • Or if you have other questions or concerns about your child’s night terrors

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are different to night terrors. A nightmare is a scary dream that wakes a child and makes them afraid to go back to sleep. Nightmares occur from dream sleep (REM sleep). Your child may wake up from the nightmare and, depending on their age, may be able to remember and describe the bad dream to you.

Nightmares may happen for no known reason, but sometimes occur when your child has seen or heard things that upset them. These can be things that actually happen or are imagination. Nightmares can often be related to developmental stages of a child. For example, a toddler may dream about separation from their parents. Whereas older kids may dream about monsters in the dark or even real issues like death.

How to help your child?

  • Comfort and reassure your child.
  • Talk about the bad dreams during the day.
  • Try and prevent them watching frightening movies or TV shows.
  • Leave the bedroom door open if you need to (never close the door on a child who is scared).
  • Provide a comforter, like a favourite cuddly toy.
  • Let your child go back to sleep in their own bed.
  • Do not spend enormous amounts of time searching for ‘the monster’ or ‘ghost’ in the room.
  • During the bedtime, talk about positive and happy things.
  • Keep bedtime calm.
  • Consider reading some positive stories to your child about ‘over coming’ night time fears.

When to call a doctor

 Consider contacting your child’s doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • They become worse or happen more often
  • It starts to interfere with daytime activities
  • You have other concerns or questions about your child’s nightmares

If you are concerned your child may be overtired then please do get in touch. I offer a free initial consultation to all parents.

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