I often hear parents report that their child has night terrors. Did you know that night terrors and bad dreams/ nightmares are not synonymous? In fact, they are very different. It is important to know the difference between night terrors and nightmares because how we should respond when our little ones experience them is different!
Nightmares are common and tend to happen later on in the night when your little one experiencing REM sleep. To our children, the situation is real, and they are distressed and may even experience anxiety around the bad dream(s).
How to help your child with Nightmares
With the goal of returning to sleep as quickly as possible, enter your child’s room and comfort him or her. Be sure to stay calm and reassuring; remind your child that everything is ok, and it was a dream, not a real event. You can explain that it is normal, something like “I have bad dreams sometimes too!” Then give them a coping mechanism “when I have bad dreams, I squeeze my pillow really tight, if I can do that, I know that it was a dream and not real!”
If the nightmares become frequent, try to analyze what is going on in your child’s day (think: scary TV show, books, images, bully etc) are there any sudden changes among the family (think: extra stress, family loss, etc). If your little one is being exposed to something scary, it might time to eliminate it until they are older. If family stressors are playing a role in the nightmares, be sure to remain consistent with your child’s schedule. When a schedule or routine is predictable, your child’s confidence will increase, and uncertainty will decrease.
Night terrors are hereditary and occur in children approximately 3 (but as early as 15 months) to 8 years old, more commonly in boys than girls. Where our little ones remember a bad dream or nightmare, they will have no recollection of a night terror as they are asleep for the duration of the episode.
What does a Night Terror look like?
Night terrors typically take place during the first half of the night. They are very scary for a parent to witness, as the child is inconsolable and unresponsive. The terror will start abruptly, the child will scream loudly, eyes wide open but will seem as though they don’t see you. As abruptly as the night terror started, it will end.
How to help your child with Night Terrors
This is very important: as hard as it is to witness, we DO NOT want to try to interact, touch, or console the child. When we do this, the night terror will be prolonged. It is best to maintain a distance where you can allow them to let the terror pass but intervene should there be potential for harm. Another really great way to help your child is to move bedtime earlier (even just 10 minutes can make a big difference!).
One more important tip: talking to our little ones about night terrors is something I would discourage. When we talk to them about something that they are not aware is even happening, we can cause anxiety around it.
Look for Triggers
As with nightmares, there are often triggers involved in the occurrence of night terrors. If your child has a night terror try to document anything that could have brought it on. A very common trigger for many children is lack of sleep. The trigger may not be scary, it may an exciting event but may also be a life-changing event (i.e. death in the family, a move).
As you can see, it is really important to pay attention to what is happening with your little one before jumping in to intervene. We would never want to prolong something they can work through on their own, but if they are anxious or scared and aware of their surroundings, we definitely want to support them as best we can.