Nightmares or Night Terrors

Mary Foster | Certified Sleepy Lambs Sleep Consultant

Did you know that nightmares and night terrors are completely different and how you respond to them should be different too?

Nightmares are typically more common in toddlers, as they develop more active imaginations, but it’s possible for babies to get them too.

Night terrors are also more common to start around age three, but some start earlier as well. If there is any good news about night terrors, it’s that your little one isn’t actually terrorised, or even scared, because he is sound asleep and unaware of what’s going on, even if he appears awake. The same can’t be said for you, as a parent, as it can feel very traumatising.

Learn more about what they are and what you should do.

Nightmares

A nightmare is a scary dream and we all get them, even as adults. It’s hard to know exactly at what age they start; they are definitely possible in babies, but they are most common in toddlers and young children due to their active imagination and being exposed to more content from watching TV, reading books or hearing stories from their little friends.  Nightmares can cause anxiety, fears and lots of tears. They typically occur during REM sleep, so they happen later in the night when your child reaches an active sleep phase. If your toddler experiences nightmares on a regular basis, or if they are a result of a frightening experience, it’s definitely worth investigating the cause and checking with your doctor.

Nightmares – What To Do

Nightmares are most common in little ones who are overtired, so focusing on helping your baby sleep better can definitely help. Having an earlier and consistent routine, and avoiding screen time during the 2 hours leading up to bedtime, can be a great way to improve the situation. If your little one wakes up with a nightmare, comfort him and acknowledge his fears, since nightmares can feel very real – we all experience that feeling every once in a while! 

If your child is scared of monsters of other creatures, resist the urge to “chase the monsters away” because it will only reinforce your child’s fear that the danger is real. Reassure him by telling him that you understand he’s scared and you can check under the bed or in the closet to show him there is no danger.

Creating a positive sleep environment is also very helpful. Spending time in their bedroom during the day and creating a happy association with their sleeping environment will help him sleep better.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are completely different from nightmares. Contrary to common belief, they are not extra scary nightmares, but an actual sleep disorder that typically occurs within the first 1 to 4 hours after your little one falls asleep. They tend to happen earlier compared to nightmares, during the transition from deep non-REM sleep to REM sleep, and they usually last anywhere from a few minutes to over half an hour. 

Night terrors typically come on suddenly and often result in screaming, shouting, thrashing around.  Your child might even respond to you but attempts to console him are met with even more resistance because he’s fully asleep and unaware of what is going on. 

Night terrors are very stressful and frustrating for parents because your child appears to be terrified but in the morning, your child will have absolutely no memory of what happened during the night. 

Confusional Arousals

Confusional Arousals are similar to night terrors, but come on less suddenly with some warning shouts and screams while he’s transitioning during sleep cycles. Confusional arousals can involve your child sleep-walking, being confused or shouting out and he might also wake up when it’s over, contrary to night terrors when they usually keep sleeping, but he will have no idea of what has been going on.

What To Do While It’s Happening

Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do while night terrors are happening and trying to help your little one might lead to more screaming and shouting and prolong the episode. This is very hard for you because you obviously want to console your child, but the best thing to do is to stay nearby and not interfere, as the episode will pass a lot faster. Night terrors can be frightening to witness, but they are not going to harm your child and they won’t even remember they happened the next day. The best thing you can do is stay next to them and wait until they calm down, and only intervene if you notice they might hurt themselves by moving around.

If there are other children in your house, they might wake up and get scared, so it could be helpful to add some white noise to their rooms to neutralize the noise from their siblings or explain to them that their sibling is just having a bad dream to reassure them. 

What you can do to prevent night terrors

There are a few tips that can make a huge difference in preventing night terrors and confusional arousals from happening. They are more likely to occur when your little one is overtired, overstimulated or if he’s going through a process of change, such as starting school, travelling, etc. 

Focusing on sleep is essential to reduce these events significantly. By having a sleep routine and making it a priority, you will ensure that your little one doesn’t go to bed overtired.

Moreover, adding food that contains magnesium to their diet (such as fish, legumes, bananas, avocado or yoghurt) will also help him avoid having night terrors. 

If night terrors occur regularly, you should speak with your doctor to double-check and rule out other possible causes. 

Nightmares, night terrors and confusional arousals are very stressful for parents and they have a big impact on the sleep of the entire family. Most children grow out of them when they are around 6-8 years old, but the thought of dealing with your baby having night terrors for a few years is definitely frustrating. Focusing on sleep and keeping a regular schedule is one of the most effective ways to reduce night terrors and often completely resolves the issue. 

Mary Foster
Founder & CEO at | mary@sleepylambs.com | Website | + posts

Hi! I'm Mary. Founder of Sleepy Lambs Sleep Consulting. I'm the mum of 3 very busy kids and have an amazing hubby. I grew up in Canada but we love our home in England.

I'm passionate about making the parenting journey a little easier for you and helping your little one become a GREAT sleeper!

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