Understanding nightmares and night terrors

Understanding Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children

Nightmares and night terrors are common occurrences in childhood sleep, often leaving parents feeling helpless and unsure of how to provide comfort to their distressed child. Understanding the differences between nightmares and night terrors, as well as effective strategies for managing each, is essential for promoting restful and peaceful sleep for both children and parents alike.


A nightmare typically occurs during the second half of the night, during the REM phase of sleep, characterized by vivid and frightening dreams. Children may awaken from a nightmare crying and seeking comfort from an adult, often recalling the details of the dream. Nightmares can stem from various sources of fear and anxiety in a child's life, and it's crucial for parents to address these underlying concerns.

Recognizing Nightmares:

  • Children may cling to a comforting object, such as a stuffed animal or blanket, seeking security and protection.
  • Exposure to scary stories or media before bedtime can contribute to heightened stress levels and increase the likelihood of nightmares.
  • Persistent inquiries about bedtime and the need for reassurance from parents may indicate underlying anxiety or fear.

How to Help with Nightmares:

  • Comfort and reassure your child upon awakening from a nightmare, offering physical affection and soothing words to alleviate their distress.
  • Engage in open and honest discussions with your child about their fears and anxieties, encouraging them to express their emotions and concerns.
  • Implement calming bedtime rituals and practices to create a sense of security and relaxation before sleep.
  • Introduce imaginative solutions, such as a "fear spray" or night light toys, to empower your child and provide them with tools to combat their fears.

Night Terrors:

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, occur during the first half of the night, typically within 2-3 hours of falling asleep. Unlike nightmares, children experiencing night terrors may exhibit extreme agitation, confusion, and physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat and sweating. Night terrors often stem from disruptions in the transition between sleep stages, and while they can be alarming for parents, they are typically harmless and tend to resolve on their own as children grow older.

Recognizing Night Terrors:

  • Children experiencing night terrors may appear disoriented and inconsolable, exhibiting frantic behavior and physical symptoms such as sweating and rapid breathing.
  • Attempts to comfort or awaken the child during a night terror may prove ineffective, as they are typically unaware of their surroundings and unable to recall the episode upon waking.
  • Night terrors may be accompanied by autonomic changes, such as increased heart rate and trembling.

How to Help with Night Terrors:

  • Provide a safe and secure environment for your child during a night terror, removing any potential hazards and ensuring their physical safety.
  • Refrain from attempting to wake or physically intervene during a night terror, as this may exacerbate the child's distress.
  • Remain calm and reassuring, offering verbal reassurance and a comforting presence until the episode subsides.
  • Avoid discussing the night terror with your child the following morning, as they are unlikely to recall the event and may become frightened or confused by the recollection.

In conclusion, nightmares and night terrors are common experiences in childhood sleep, often stemming from underlying fears and anxieties. By recognizing the signs and symptoms of each and implementing effective strategies for managing them, parents can provide their children with the support and comfort they need to navigate these nighttime challenges and enjoy restful, rejuvenating sleep.