There is really a big difference between a nightmare and night terror. You want to respond to a night terror differently than you would a nightmare. It’s important to know the difference in symptoms between the two.
Nightmares are scary dreams that awaken children and make them afraid to go back to sleep. Nightmares are very common, especially in children between two to five when their imaginations are rich and they have some trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Nightmares can occur during times of change or times of stress or when a child is reliving a trauma, but they can also happen for no known reason. Children commonly have nightmares when they start a new school or have a new sibling. When children have a nightmare, they will seek comfort from their disturbing dream and recognize you upon seeing you. They are able to recall the nightmare, or at least portions of it, but it may take a while to fall back asleep and get the scary thoughts out of their minds.
What you can do:
- Avoid scary shows (even the news can be frightening), videos and books. Avoid any TV before bedtime.
- During the bedtime routine, talk about happy and fun things.
- Don’t play scary games.
- Respond quickly, comfort them, and assure them of their safety. This is not a time for cry-it-out. Start by sitting (not laying) in your child’s view until he or she is asleep. Reduce the amount of time you sit in your chair.
- Help your child get enough sleep – sleep deprivation can increase nightmares.
- If your child does have a nightmare, do not ask your child to give you a lot of details about it. That will just make them relive the experience.
- 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. Melatonin is one example of a supplement that has been shown to cause nightmares. You also may want to see an ENT to rule out sleep apnea, as this can make children wake up scared.
Night terrors are also very common in children. They most commonly affect children between the ages of two to twelve but they can occur earlier or later. They are not bad dreams. It’s kind of being stuck between wakefulness and sleep. Your child may kick, cry, and scream and be inconsolable. He may not even recognize you. He may not know you are there even if his eyes are open. He may even seem frightened of you or of an object in the room. The terror usually lasts between five and fifteen minutes and then the child will go back to sleep easily if parents do not interfere. These incidents are often more upsetting for the parent than they are for the child. Night terrors usually occur within the first 3-4 hours after the child falls asleep. Night terrors can occur during a developmental milestone or a time of stress. Night terrors seem to be more common in boys, and occur in five percent of all children. Your child is more likely to have night terrors if either parent had them as a child, or if either parent had a partial arousal sleep disorder such as sleepwalking.
What you can do:
- Make sure your child gets enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can make the terrors worse. Make sure your child goes to bed at a regular time that allows him to get enough sleep. Try putting him to bed about 30 minutes earlier. Younger children may need a daily nap.
- If your child is having a night terror, monitor the child but avoid touching or talking to your child as this can make the episode last longer.
- Make sure your child is physically safe during the night terror.
- Don’t talk about the terror with your child the next day, they usually don’t remember them.
- Keep a log of when your child falls asleep and the timing of his terrors for several nights. Wake him 15 minutes before you expect the terror to occur for 7 a week or so.
- Look into the Lully Sleep Guardian, which claims a 75% reduction in terrors after four weeks of use.