Nightmares and night terrors

Nightmares and night terrors

All of us have experienced unpleasant or even terrifying dreams, but as a parent, witnessing your child waking up upset or frightened can be very worrying. When is it more than just a bad dream, and what can you do to help?


Nightmares versus night terrors


Most dreams – both good dreams and nightmares - happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Nightmares often happen later in the night, and your child may be so upset or frightened by the scene that has unfolded behind their eyes that they may have trouble going to sleep again. Night terrors, on the other hand, happen in non-REM sleep, often a couple of hours after your child has gone to bed. Night terrors are not really dreams, but rather reactions to the transition between sleep states. They occur due to overstimulation of the nervous system, and may cause a child to sit up in bed, scream and cry. These events can be very upsetting for parents, but the child often has no memory of the event the next day, and night terrors usually resolve on their own with time.


What to do about nightmares


If your child has had a nightmare, the first thing to do is reassure them with your presence. Assure your child that you are there and that nothing can harm them. If something particular in the room is causing fear, remove it. Talk about the dream, and remind your child that dreams aren’t real. Try leaving a light on for the night or giving your child a toy or special blanket to sleep with. To avoid or minimise nightmares, try to keep the wind-down routine before bed relaxing, and avoid scary movies or overstimulation just before bedtime.


What to do about night terrors


Your child may seem inconsolable, and often the best thing you can do as soon as the night terror has occurred is simply to wait it out. Avoid trying to wake your child during a night terror, as this can lead to more disorientation and confusion. Most children will settle on their own and go back to sleep in a few minutes. In order to reduce or prevent night terrors, you can ensure that your child follows a defined bedtime routine and avoids late nights. If the problem persists, chat to your doctor about whether further investigations are necessary.


This information is this article is intended for general purposes only. If you have any concerns about your health or the health of your child, you should always consult with a healthcare professional.