Nightmares and night terrors are scary for children… and they can often disrupt the sleep of an entire household to boot. However, there are steps that parents can take to help their children work through them.
Nightmares and night terrors are distinctly different.
Nightmares are scary dreams that awaken a child. The content of children’s nightmares usually relates to their developmental challenges. Toddlers might have nightmares about separation from their parents, monsters and the dark, while school-age children may dream about friendships, schoolwork or even violence, which are more complex, real-life fears.
Night terrors involve partially waking from sleep. Children with night terrors may scream, kick, panic, sleep walk, thrash, or mumble. Night terrors usually occur within two hours of the time a child goes to sleep and can last from 10 to 30 minutes. Night terrors occur in about 2 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 8 years. Parents are usually frightened by their child’s extreme agitation from night terrors, but most children don’t even remember the episode in the morning.
There are several ways parents can help their children deal with both nightmares and night terrors.
Here are some ways to deal specifically with nightmares:
Control media exposure
Although children can have bad dreams about a variety of events in their lives, scary movies and TV shows - and even violent newscasts - may cause our children to have more frequent nightmares. Make sure your little ones are consuming age-appropriate media.
Stay within hearing distance
Make sure you are able to hear your child if they cry out during the night, especially if they have been having frequent nightmares. Don’t forget to alert your babysitters, too!
Go to your child
If you hear your child call out, go to them immediately. Quietly comfort them back to sleep, but resist the urge to wake them up. A child who is awakened by a nightmare needs our presence, but unless your child is risking getting hurt, hold off on waking them if they’re still sleeping – they will either resume normal sleep or eventually awaken.
Stay with your child if they do wake up
Explain to your child that they were just having a bad dream and that everything is all right. Let them hold and cuddle you. The fear that they experience from nightmares is real, even though the monsters are not. Let your child know that it’s safe to go back to sleep. You may even want to stay with them until they do. Leave the bedroom door open, offer a nightlight or leave a light on.
Talk with your child about their nightmare
You can talk to your child about their bad dream. In some cases, you can even talk about the bad dream the day after it happened. If your child prefers not to talk about the nightmare, that’s okay, too.
Empower your child
Talk to your child about ways to overcome the feelings of the bad dream. Let them know that they can change a bad dream to a good dream by making up a happy ending to the dream. Reassure them that there are no monsters in the house and even do a room check for monsters before going to bed. If you’re feeling extra creative, put some water in a spray bottle, label the bottle “Sweet Dream Spray,” and let your child do a quick spritz to their bedroom before bedtime.
Here are some ways to deal specifically with night terrors:
When a child is having a night terror, they are frightened but cannot be awakened or comforted. Their eyes might be wide open – much like sleep walking – but they won’t know you are there if you go in their room. They might think objects or persons in the room are scary, and the episode usually lasts anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes.
Help your child return to normal sleep
You won’t be able to wake up your child, so don’t try, and certainly do not shake them or shout at them. That can cause them to become more upset. Instead, turn on the lights so your child is less confused by shadows. Make soothing comments. Also, hold your child if it helps them to feel better.
Protect your child against injury
During a night terror, a child can be mobile – so take specific precautions to prevent any injuries. Make sure the house door is locked and be cautious of bathrooms and stairs. Try to gently direct your child back to bed. Although your child is sleeping, they still have the ability to open doors and turn on lights and faucets.
Night terrors can be triggered when your child is overly tired, stressed or anxious. Make sure they go to bed at a regular time - and early enough. Younger children may need to return to a daily nap. Talk with them about any issues they are having or read a fun, lighthearted bed-time story.
Consult with your doctor
While night terrors are scary, they are not emotionally harmful. That said, certain signs may warrant a call to the doctor. If the night terrors last longer than 30 minutes, or if your child has other abnormal symptoms, make sure to consult with their pediatrician. Also call the doctor if your child does something dangerous during their night terror, or if their terrors are happening during the second half of the night, if they have daytime fears, or if you feel that family stress is a factor.