You finally got your child to sleep… ah time to kick back and relax, OK let’s be real, more like time to do the dishes, tidy up the toys and maybe if you are lucky watch some TV or do some work.
After a few hours you hear a blood curdling scream coming from your child’s bedroom. You burst into the room to find your child screaming in what seems to be pure terror.. They are not aware of your presence and are inconsolable. What just happened? You yourself are likely just as terrified and are not sure what just happened. Was this a nightmare? Or maybe one of those night terrors you heard your friend talking about? How do you know the difference and what should you do about it?
Here are some tips and guidelines to tell the difference between nightmares vs night terrors and what we should do when they occur:
- Usually happens later in the evening
- Child will be awake and alert upon waking from a nightmare
- Child will be able to be soothed or comforted by your presence
- Child will remember the event and if old enough will be able to recount the nightmare
What should you do? – After a nightmare, it is best to go in and comfort and reassure your child as needed and then get them back to sleep. The more confident and calm you are, the quicker your child will resettle and be able to go back to sleep.
How can we avoid it? – Try to avoid television a good hour before bedtime. Always be mindful of the content your child is exposed to via television, computer and books. Lastly, speaking with your child about any fears or anxieties they may be experiencing.
- A night terror will usually take place within the first few hours from the onset of sleep
- Child may be crying, screaming, thrashing, walking or a combination of all four.
- Child will not be able to be consoled and in fact parental intervention tends to aggravate the situation
- Child may not even appear to know you or see you.. they are actually still “asleep”
- A terror can last anywhere from 5-20 minutes on average after which the child will simply fall back to sleep.
- The child will not have a recollection of the event in the morning
What should you do? – Nothing.. ok well almost nothing. We want to go in and ensure your child’s safety making sure they are not in harms way, however allow the terror to take place. Avoid trying to wake your child or restrain your child as that will likely make it worse. It is usually more upsetting for the parent to witness the terror then for the child experiencing it. In the morning, it is best not to ask your child about the event or to tell them about it as it can cause anxiety and worry especially in older children.
How can we avoid it?– Earlier bedtimes! This is the most common cause of night terrors in children. We find that when we simply bring bedtime back sometimes as little as 30 minutes we can see those terrors disappear. Making sure your child has good sleep hygiene and healthy sleep habits will help avoid night terrors.
If you have any more questions about nightmares vs night terrors or would like help in dealing with your child’s sleep habits, please visit