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Should you wake up a child who's having a nightmare or just let him sleep it out?

Updated on May 31, 2009

Nightmare or Night Terror?

I think it depends on whether your child is having a nightmare or a night terror. What is the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?

A nightmare is basically just a bad dream, whereas a night terror is a sleep disorder that occurs in about 15% of young children (it also occurs in adults).

When we sleep, we go through 5 different stages of sleep - 1 REM (rapid eye movement) stage and 4 non-REM. REM sleep is also known as the dream phase and this is the phase where regular dreams and nightmares occur. REM sleep is the lightest of all 4 stages of sleep. It occurs several times during the night - the last one occurs just before waking. During REM sleep, there is a noticeable twitching movement of the eyes under closed lids and the voluntary muscles are usually paralysed. The paralysis of the muscles ensures that children having nightmares are unable to hurt themselves.

Children having nightmares are easily woken and soothed. They will also remember the nightmare and can tell you about it if they are old enough to articulate their dreams.

A night terror occurs usually in the fourth stage of sleep - also the deepest stage of sleep. This is the reason why it is very difficult to wake a child having a night terror. Unlike nightmares, children having night terrors can hurt themselves because they are not protected by the paralysis of the voluntary muscles that occurs during REM sleep.

Children having night terrors may bolt upright with their eyes wide open but they will be neither awake nor asleep. They do not remember the night terror and it usually occurs in the early part of the night (usually within the first four hours of falling asleep). Night terrors can last anywhere between 5 to 30 minutes, after which, the children will return to normal sleep.

What Should You Do?

If your child is having a nightmare, then you should wake them, comfort them and help them get back to sleep. A child who has had a nightmare can be easily comforted.

If your child is having a night terror, it is probably best that you don't wake them. Waking a child who is having a night terror is only likely to make the child agitated and scared because of your own reaction to their night terror. They won't remember the episode anyway. The best thing to do is to make sure they are safe, comfort them if you can (although your child may not be fully conscious, your child can still hear your voice which will be soothing to him), and then help them return to sleep when it is over.

My son who is one year old has had night terrors before where he appears to be awake. His eyes are wide open and his is crying hysterically but he is inconsolable and doesn't appear to register my presence. I usually hold him, talk to him and stroke his back until the episode is over. They say that a child having a night terror may push you away the more you try to hold them, but this has never happened with my son.

Although no treatment is necessary for children with night terrors, you can prevent them by making sure that your child has a good bedtime routine. Night terrors are often triggered when children are overtired so make sure you get your child to sleep before they push past their limits. I have noticed that the nights where my son gets a night terror usually coincides after a big day out and he's been too excited to nap during the day.

Hope this helps...


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      jenny 6 years ago

      My daughter is 6 yrs old and has night terrors. As i try to comfort her the more she pushes aways and tries to hurt me. At times she even draws blood from me from digging her nails into me as her eyes are rolled back and wide open. Its scary.

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      luke 7 years ago

      the best option is to turn the light on. a bright light will reactivate their volintarly eye muscles and begin to wake them up instantly and causes disturbance bringing their mind of the topic of nightmare.

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      Danielle  7 years ago

      Jesus,Stanley, You got it bad. Sounds like something right out of Nightmare on Elm Street. I am very sorry for you and hope that it somehow gets better for you cuz geez I don't think I could live with something like thatO.O"

    • Stanley_19802 profile image

      Stanley_19802 8 years ago

      Hello Everyone,

      I have PTSD from some childhood abuse. I have had very vivid nightmares of the abuse for about the last 20 years. Starting at age 10 (1990). In my nightmares it's very hard to see it's just a dream. When I touch things in the nightmares I can feel them, smell them, taste food, hear sounds all very clearly. It's like I am really there in person all over again. Often in the nightmares I spend a lot of the time trying to figure out how I got there. And the strangest thing yet is if I am injured in the nightmare, I wake up with the injuries. I have woken up with cuts, bruises, pulled muscles, spaines in my arms and legs. It's as if they really happened. From what I understand from what I have found out about it online, is that because the dreams are so vivid the mind makes it real. Or something like that. The dreams are quite terrifing. My suggestion, do everything you can to make your child feel safe. Night lights are helpful. A radio on the night stand has been helpful for me as a grounding tool. Maybe even get a scent candle that is used ONLY for his room. That way when he/she smeels it he knows he is safe, back in his/her room. The sooner I realize I am back in my bed and it was just a nightmare the better. Take care and be well.


    • figur8 profile image

      figur8 9 years ago

      Thanks Nona.

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      nona 9 years ago

      wow i have to agree wich ya good luck with the baby

    • figur8 profile image

      figur8 10 years ago

      Thanks! I researched it when I was studying dreams in school. Very fascinating stuff.

    • tinyteddy profile image

      tinyteddy 10 years ago from INDIA

      fantastic .you ave thrown light into the rem phase of sleep