Nightmares and night terrors are common in children. But what’s the difference between the two – and how can you help comfort your child when they experience them?
Nightmares happen when children are in REM sleep, or dream sleep. Your child might wake up knowing that he’s had a bad dream, and be able to describe it to you.
Night terrors, however, happen during the deepest phases of sleep at the start of the night.
A child having a night terror will thrash around and scream, and probably won’t even recognize you.
During a night terror, your child isn’t awake, and he won’t remember it the following day. This sleep disturbance affects about 5% of children, and is more common in boys.
Nightmare and night terrors: what’s the difference?
Nightmares are most common in children aged three to six, and most children will outgrow them, although even as adults we can still have the occasional bad dream.
They usually happen in the early hours of the morning, when children are in the lighter stages of sleep. Your child is likely to be anxious, upset and distressed when he wakes; he may or may not remember what he was dreaming about.
Night terrors are most common in children aged three to eight years, but they can start as young as 18 months.
Unlike nightmares, they usually happen in the first part of the night. The episode can last anywhere up to 15 minutes.
A child having a night terror will typically scream suddenly, thrash around, sit bolt upright or even leap out of bed.
His eyes may be wide open, but because he’s not awake, it’s impossible to comfort him.
Although night terrors look extremely distressing, your child won’t remember what happened the next day, as the part of the brain that relates to memory and awareness is deeply asleep.
During a night terror, your child might sweat, mumble, talk and scream. He may even sleepwalk, so it’s important to keep him safe, for example by using stair gates and making sure external doors are locked at night.
What causes night terrors?
Night terrors are thought to be caused by your child sleeping particularly deeply. This means they’re more likely if he’s overtired or unwell. They can be triggered by a fever and some medicines.
They can also happen if something wakes your child suddenly from a deep sleep, such as a sudden noise or needing the toilet.
Children with a family history of sleepwalking and night terrors are more likely to be affected.
Helping your child with nightmares and night terrors
If your child has had a nightmare, you’ll be able to comfort him when he wakes from the dream.
They’re often caused by a frightening experience, such as seeing something scary on TV. They can also be a sign of underlying anxiety, so talk to your child to find out if something is worrying him.
If your child is having recurrent nightmares with a similar theme, talk to your GP; in some cases, children benefit from counselling to address their worries.
During a night terror, your child will resist being comforted, but stay with him until he’s calm.
Don’t intervene or try to wake him unless he’s putting himself in danger, as he might become more distressed if he wakes and doesn’t recognise you.
Once the episode has passed, you can wake your child and help him resettle, or simply leave him asleep and tuck him back into bed.
Managing night terrors in children
If your child is having night terrors every night at a specific time, it may help to wake him 15 minutes before that time every night for seven days.
Keep him awake for five minutes and then let him go back to sleep.
This can alter his sleep pattern enough to break the cycle of night terrors, without affecting his sleep quality.
Because children don’t remember night terrors the next day, there’s no point talking to him about them; this may just make him more distressed.
Ensure your child is getting enough sleep, with a consistent bedtime routine to help him relax at night.
Regular mealtimes and daytime naps will also help to set his body clock and provide a predictable schedule to make him feel safe and secure.
A raised body temperature can lead to sleep disturbances so ensure that the room isn’t too hot and that bedding is appropriate.