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Nightmares vs. Night Terrors: What to do When Your Child’s Sleep Isn’t Restful

Young girl sleeping with teddy bear

Ideally, sleep should be a time of rest and restoration when our little ones recover from a full day of learning and growing. In a perfect world, they would spend every night dreaming of pleasant things, but fear can seep in no matter what they do. As our children grow, nightmares and night terrors might occasionally interrupt their dreams.

Is my child having nightmares or night terrors?

Before we can fight these nocturnal menaces, we need to know what we’re dealing with so we can choose the right weapon. Nightmares and night terrors might look similar at first glance, but they are different beasts with their own features and combat strategies.

Nightmares are sometimes called scary dreams, and for good reason. Your child will wake up from a nightmare feeling scared or anxious. They’ll recall having a nightmare and may even recount details that made them feel afraid. A nightmare is an internal event vividly experienced by the sleeper and may or may not have any external signs. By contrast, a night terror is a mostly external event and is usually more difficult for parents and caregivers than for the children going through it. How can I help my child when they have a nightmare?

  1. Comfort with physical touch like holding hands, a hug, or a cuddle. Pay attention to what your child needs through their words and body language.
  2. Offer words of support. Remind them they are safe and loved.
  3. Try “rescripting” a nightmare. Ask your child to describe their nightmare, including the events leading up to what scared them. Now, tell the story again, only this time in a way that gets rid of the scary stuff. Turn the scary thing into something silly, or give your child a new tool or superpower for dealing with the monster. Create new characters and situations together, or enlist your child’s favorite superhero. Focus on details they can latch onto to fill their heads with pleasant images before they drift back off to dreamland.
  4. Try “rescripting” a nightmare. Ask your child to describe their nightmare, including the events leading up to what scared them. Now, tell the story again, only this time in a way that gets rid of the scary stuff. Turn the scary thing into something silly, or give your child a new tool or superpower for dealing with the monster. Create new characters and situations together, or enlist your child’s favorite superhero. Focus on details they can latch onto to fill their heads with pleasant images before they drift back off to dreamland.
  5. Incorporate relevant storybooks into your reading routine, like “King of All Monsters: A “No More Nightmares Book” by Dr. Mitch Peterson. Storybook characters overcoming challenges and defeating monsters on the page give children a model for how to do it in their own lives.
  6. If nightmares persist, or if there are other factors, such as scary or traumatic real-life events, call your child’s pediatrician for reinforcements. They’ll be able to discuss options, including therapy, where needed.

How can I help my child if they are having a night terror?

As difficult as it is to stand by, night terrors require very little response from parents and caregivers. As long as your child is safe throughout the night, they usually outgrow night terrors by the time they are teenagers.

During a night terror, your child might present with any of the following symptoms: screaming, sweating, confusion, sudden waking, kicking, panic or fear, sleepwalking, thrashing, or mumbling. They might have their eyes open and move around, though they are not awake, and these episodes can last for 30 minutes or more.

You don’t need to wake your child up from a night terror. Doing so might only cause more confusion, resulting in questions such as “Why did you wake me up?” Remember, your child isn’t experiencing fear. Conquering night terrors is all about creating the right environment for you and your child to wait them out. Here are some things you can do for your child if they are having night terrors.

  1. Create a safe environment. Be aware of nearby dangers to protect yourself and your child from injury, especially if your child kicks or thrashes around.
  2. Hold (cuddle, not restrain) your child if it helps provide safety and comfort.
  3. If they get out of bed, gently direct them back.
  4. Get enough rest. Night terrors can be triggered by lack of sleep; maintaining a consistent sleep schedule for your child can reduce their frequency.
  5. Give caregivers (grandparents, aunts/uncles, babysitters, etc.) a heads-up so they know what to do if and when you’re not there.

More often than not, night terrors are an infrequent and temporary occurrence, but kids occasionally benefit from a little extra help. If night terrors frequently happen, last longer than 30 minutes, or interfere with your child’s wakeful hours, those are good reasons to talk with your child’s pediatrician.

Mitch Peterson, M.D.

Mitch Peterson, M.D.

Mitch practices pediatrics in our Riverton office.

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