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The two are often confused but are in fact distinctly different. So – let’s take a look at the characteristics of each one.

Nightmares

  • Occur during the latter part of night sleep
  • Are common
  • The child is woken by the nightmare or is confused if woken
  • Can vividly recall the nightmare
  • May take a while to calm down
  • Nightmares don’t happen very often and are usually temporary

Night Terrors

  • Happen in the first part of the night
  • The child is asleep at the time and often there is no waking
  • The child is very confused if woken
  • The child has no memory of the night terror on waking
  • They can happen frequently or infrequently and last weeks, months or even years
  • The child can literally get out of bed and run around!

Nightmares

Nightmares usually occur in REM sleep. We have more REM sleep in the later stages of night sleep and this is when a child is more likely to have a nightmare.

It is perfectly normal for children to have the odd nightmare. Mostly a quick, reassuring cuddle from a parent is all that is needed. If nightmares persist it’s worth a bit of parental investigation. Many times we have found nightmares are related to “scary” cartoons. One child we met was obsessed with Max from “Where the Wild Things Are”. His parents thought it was perfectly acceptable bedtime reading because he enjoyed it so much. But little imaginations can imagine wild things in their dreams! End of that bed time story!

Seriously – a little bit of investigation is often all that’s needed to find the source of your child’s nightmare. Sometimes a night light helps to dispel worries of darkness and is reassuring if woken from a nightmare.

One five year old responded beautifully to “magic dust” (glitter) being sprinkled around the bedroom to keep the monster away. It was vacuumed up a week later by which time she had completely forgotten her fear.

One last bit of advice is don’t be drawn into your child’s nightmare in the middle of the night – you can do the analysis in the morning. It’ll only keep you both awake and achieve nothing. As we said all most children need is reasssurance it was a bad dream and a quick “tuck up” in bed again.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are a completely different scenario – possibly because they can be frightening for parents to observe! On the other hand the child usually has no memory of them.

In younger children (cot bound) we are more likely to call them confusional arousals. These begin with moaning and agitation and can progress to intense crying and thrashing about. Despite appearing alert the child does not respond to a parents attempt to console them. These episodes last anything from 5 – 15 minutes.

If your tot has confusional arousals don’t try to waken him/her as this will only prolong the episode. As a parent all you can do is be with your child to make sure they are safe until they calm down again.

Night terrors tend to start in later childhood. They are very alarming for parents. the terror may start with a high pitched scream. The child may have wide open eyes, be sweating and crying out. He/she may get out of bed and run around the room in an agitated state as if trying to escape. This usually lasts no longer than a few minutes at which point the child falls back to sleep.

Many parents worry that their child’s strange behaviour in the night is due to some underlying psychological condition. This is simply not true. Most children who have night terrors have a genetic propensity to them and will grow out of them.

As parents there are a few things you can do to help your child:

  • Firstly – if the child is unaware of his/her night terrors – there is simply no point in telling him/her. It will only serve to make them feel different or embarrassed.
  • Secondly – make the bedroom as safe as possible to reduce the risk of injury.
  • And lastly – if night terrors happen around the same time of night you can try waking your child 15 minutes before the usual time of the night terror for 1 month. This will reorganise his/her sleep cycles.

It’s important for parents to understand night terrors are common and the majority of children grow out of them with no ill effects. Just remember to warn your child of the “sleep terror” genes when they become parents themselves.