Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The children were finally asleep and their parents were looking forward to a little relaxation time before turning in for the night.

Suddenly, they heard a shriek from their four year old daughter’s room. They rushed upstairs to find her thrashing around and screaming. When they tried to go comfort her, she pushed them away and didn’t even seem to recognize them. After a few minutes, she calmed down and fell back asleep.

The little girl had experienced a night terror though she had no memory of it the following morning. Parents can often be confused as to the difference between nightmares and night terrors and more importantly, what to do when they occur.

Nightmares usually happen when dreaming is most intense which occurs later in the sleep cycle. Children will wake up feeling afraid or crying and then have a difficult time falling back asleep.

When a nightmare occurs, parents should go to their child as quickly as possible. Once there, the child should be reassured that is was just a dream and that her parents will not let anything bad happen to her. It will often be beneficial if the child can tell her dream to a parent. It can help to offer to leave a light on and encourage her to go back to sleep. If the child is afraid of something like a half-open closet door, make sure it is fully closed before leaving.

Night terrors occur earlier in the night during the deepest sleep, usually when parents are still up. The night terrors occur much like the above scenario. In addition, night terrors can include the child sweating, shaking, crying uncontrollably, looking confused or terrified, and not recognizing her parents. The night terrors can last as long as 45 minutes but are usually shorter.

Parents need to treat night terrors differently than nightmares. Usually the child will not remember the night terror though the parents certainly will. When the night terror is occurring, parents should stay calm and not try to wake their child. Rather, parents should make sure the child won’t hurt herself and let the night terror play out. The night terror usually stops after a few minutes and the child will frequently go back to sleep.

Night terrors are relatively rare and occur most often in elementary age children while nightmares are common for all children. Regardless of whether it is a night terror or nightmare, parents can make sure their child has a regular and consistent sleep schedule. This means having a relaxing bedtime routine where the child gets to bed at a regular time. This can help minimize nightmares and night terrors from occurring.

If a child continues to have frequent nightmares or night terrors, parents should start keeping a sleep diary. The sleep diary can help pediatricians and other health professionals pinpoint the causes of the sleep disturbance and intervene.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on October 23, 2015

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