Night terrors and nightmares are different. They happen at different stages of sleep and warrant different reactions from parents.
So, what exactly happens and what should parents do about them?
What happens during a night terror?
When a child has a night terror, he might suddenly start screaming, thrashing around in his bed or even running through the house. He will appear anxious and frightened, his eyes will be wide open, he might be sweating, his heart-rate will be fast and for the duration of the arousal, he will be inconsolable.
However, despite how it may seem, the child is actually not fully awake during a night terror.
When do night terrors occur?
Dr. Marc Weissbluth, paediatrician and author of “Heathy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” explains, that night terrors fall into a similar category to sleepwalking and sleep talking, because they occur mainly during the non-REM (deep) sleep phase and not during REM sleep or dreaming. Therefore they are not related to bad dreams.
In fact, children have no memory of a night terror when they wake up. Night terrors often occur within the first two hours of going to sleep and generally last between 5-15 minutes, but can also last longer.
They are most common in children between the ages of 3-12 years old and if they start before puberty, they are not thought to be a result of any emotional triggers.
What should parents do during a night terror?
As parents, we obviously want to help and console our children. Therefore, the common reaction is to try and wake them up. However, because a night terror isn’t actually a bad dream and a child has no recollection of it, waking them up will confuse them and usually upset them even more.
With this in mind, I therefore recommend letting the night terror run its course, even though I know it is incredibly hard not to intervene when your child is upset.
Tips to help your child through a night terror:
- Make sure they are safe and cannot hurt themselves, whilst the night terror is going on (for example, make sure they are in a soft bed with no sharp edges and no doors or stairs in their vicinity).
- Stay with your child to support and protect them and try to gently calm them with your voice.
- If they let you, you can also try to gently stroke them. Although, often they will push or hit your hand away whilst they are in the middle of having a night terror.
Is there a solution to night terrors?
Night terrors tend to occur more frequently when a child is sick, particularly during a fever or when a child has an irregular sleep schedule and is overtired as a result.
Therefore, if a child is suffering from regular night terrors, then their routine and schedule needs to be looked at in order to make sure they have an age-appropriate routine. Sometimes moving bedtime forward as little as 30 minutes can already make a huge difference!
What happened during a nightmare?
A child will wake up distraught and scared and will usually remember details of the dream and why they are upset.
When do nightmares occur?
Nightmares occur during the REM (light) sleep phase, which is the phase in which we dream. Unlike night terrors, they tend to happen later in the night.
What should you do if your child has a nightmare?
Wake up your child and console them. This is the key difference between a night terror and a nightmare. A child who had a nightmare will be glad to be woken up and comforted by their parent.
If your child is having frequent nightmares, try keeping a diary of what you did during the day and closer to bedtime and how your child slept each night to try and identify the possible causes.
Also, make sure your child’s bedtime routine is calm and relaxing and avoid screen time at least 60 minutes prior to bed (especially anything which your child might find scary).
A note from Celina:
All DREAMSTER routines consider age-appropriate awake windows and sleep needs. Please book one of my consultations through my bloss profile for more tailored advice.