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How to Help a Child Who's Having Nightmares or Night Terrors.

Updated on August 2, 2016

Nightmares and night terrors are often confused. Both are frightening for the child and heartbreaking for you as a parent. In this article we’ll look at the difference between a nightmare and a night terror and how your response to your child’s upset needs to be slightly different for each.

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A nightmare is a vivid and disturbing dream. If you’ve ever had a nightmare you’ll know that you wake from it feeling frightened and able to recall the dream. The same is true for your child and after some soothing and reassurance she will (reluctantly) go back to sleep.

They’re not uncommon in children after the age of about 2 years as the imagination develops and they begin to make more sense of the world.

Nightmares usually happen in the later night or early morning during REM sleep. We’ll look at REM and non-REM sleep below.

No one really knows what causes nightmares but like other dreams, they’re thought to be a product of our imaginations as we interpret the world around us. There may not be an identifiable cause but often they can result from domestic tension or stress in their immediate environment.

How to help a child who’s having nightmares.

  • · It’s worth being mindful of what your child is reading, watching on TV/video and what games (especially video games) she’s playing. You can’t protect them from everything and they need to learn to understand the bad things in the world but avoid too much that might be upsetting before bedtime.
  • · Make bedtime a relaxing time with soothing music, soft lighting and gentle stories.
  • · Have a relaxed and cosy bedroom where she enjoys being. More on where babies and children sleepin the babies and children's sleep section at
  • · When she has had a bad dream, help her to talk about it if she wants to, either at the time or during the day when it’s ‘safer’.
  • · If she wakes in the night in distress, go to her and offer your love and reassurance but stay calm as you soothe her.
  • · Help her to realise the dreams aren’t real.
  • · Use a nightlight so that she feels comforted.
  • · Help her go back to sleep by letting her choose her favourite soft toy or blankie for comfort.
  • · Stay with her until she’s settled but let her go back to sleep on her own. This way she learns that it’s safe to fall asleep without you.
  • Nightmares are usually one-off events but repeated nightmares that are interrupting good quality sleep should be discussed with your paediatrician if you’re worried.

Night terrors.

A night terror is an extreme and more dramatic night event where she may thrash about in bed. They happen during non-REM sleep and towards the beginning of the night, about 2-3 hours after she’s fallen asleep. If the child wakes she may not remember anything about what was happening but be inconsolable in her distress. She’ll probably settle and go back to sleep more easily that if she’s had a nightmare.

Fewer than 8% of children have them and they are more common in little ones ages 4-12 years than in adults.

An over-arousal of the child’s central nervous system (CNS) which is the area in the brain that controls sleeping and waking activity, is thought to cause night terrors. If there is someone else in the family who has had night terrors as a child, this can be inherited as a tendency. Otherwise, children who are over tired, over stressed or taking certain medications can have them.

Helping a child with night terrors.

  • Try to ensure that your child doesn’t get over tired by staying awake too late at night.
  • Stick to your regular bedtime routine.
  • If you’re worried about stress levels then try to reduce these.
  • If you suspect a new medication is causing the problem then talk to your doctor before stopping the drug.
  • If she has a night terror, don’t try to wake her as she may be disorientated and find it more difficult to go back to sleep.
  • Instead, wait patiently until she has either woken up spontaneously or settled without waking and make sure she doesn’t hurt herself as she moves about in the bed.
  • If she wakes, cuddle her, offer reassurance and help her settle back to sleep when she’s ready.

Understanding night terrors and nightmares can make them less frightening for you. They are usually a phase or self-limiting and the child will grow out of them.

REM and non-REM sleep.

REM sleep stands for Rapid Eye Movement and if you’ve ever watched someone who’s dreaming you’ll have seen the eyes flickering under the lids as they sleep. This is REM – the person is dreaming, so the brain is active, but the body is generally immobile.

Non-REM sleep is where the mind is inactive (so not dreaming) but the blood supply to the muscles etc is increased as restorative and growth hormones are released from the brain.


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