Being woken up by our little one’s sounding scared or distressed can be upsetting for us as parents too.
Though nightmares and night terrors sound similar, they are actually completely different things.
Knowing the difference can help us support our little one’s through the experience and feel better prepared ourselves.
What Is A Night Terror?
Night terrors are common in young children, usually between 3 and 8 years old.
During a night terror your little one may scream, thrash around, sit up or try to get out of bed. If your child is experiencing a night terror they won’t wake up fully, though they may have their eyes open.
Night Terrors usually happen during the first part of the night and can last for around 15 minutes on average.
It can feel quite alarming to see your little one go through a night terror, but they will have no memory of it happening.
Why Do Night Terrors Happen?
Night Terrors can be triggered by different things that affect a child’s sleep. These can include having a fever, being very tired or some medications. A night terror episode may also happen if disturbed from a deep sleep, perhaps because they have a full bladder, hear a sudden noise or are feeling anxious.
For families with a history of sleepwalking or night terrors then it can be more common for children to also experience night terrors.
What Should You Do If Your Child Has A Night Terror?
If your child has a night terror it can be upsetting, but try to stay calm and observe them to make sure they are safe. Wait for the terror to pass and for them to calm down rather than trying to wake them. They are unlikely to recognise you while they are experiencing a terror and it can lead them to be more upset or confused if you try to wake them.
After a night terror has ended your little one will likely be calm and return to sleep quickly and easily. You might need a little longer to settle back to sleep afterwards!
It can be helpful to chat to your child during the day to see if there is anything on their mind that could be unsettling them, but try not to refer to the night terror too specifically as it could make them feel upset or anxious about what happened.
If your little one is experience night terrors frequently and at the same time each night, it can be helpful to gentle rouse their sleep 15 minutes before they usually happen for a few nights in a row.
Make sure they have a wee before they go to bed so a full bladder won’t disturb them during the night.
A relaxing predictable bedtime routine is beneficial for us all, but can be also be helpful for children who experience night terrors.
What Are Nightmares?
Nightmares are vivid dreams that may be scary or upsetting – after waking from a nightmare your little one will likely feel a little anxious and upset and may find it hard to settle back to sleep.
Nightmares tend to happen during REM sleep in the later part of the night. They are common amongst children usually between 3 to 6 years old.
Unlike a night terror, children are likely to remember a nightmare and be able to describe details of the dream to you.
What Causes Nightmares?
Nightmares can happen if your child is going through some big changes that are unsettling them, they might have seen something frightening on TV or there could be something worrying them.
What Should You Do If Your Child Has A Nightmare?
After waking up from a nightmare your little one will probably need some support and reassurance to help them feel secure and settle back to sleep.
During the day talk to them about the nightmare and give them the chance to work through their feelings and worries. Offer lots of reassurance that you are always there for them and that the nightmare wasn’t real.
It can be helpful to draw a picture or write about the nightmare – when we talk about and explore what happened in the nightmare they lose their power.
Just like with night terrors, a relaxing and predictable bedtime routine can be helpful for children who have experienced a nightmare to prepare for a restful nights sleep.
When To Get Extra Help?
If you are ever worried about your little one experiencing frequent nightmares or night terrors then speak with your doctor. They can investigate if there is anything triggering them and offer support and guidance.
Want more support with your child’s sleep?
If you would like to learn more about sleep and have guidance on how you can approach achieving a predictable routine and well-rested night’s sleep then check out our online courses.
Available from newborn to 4 years old, our courses are designed to help you learn how you can support your child to sleep better.
We share all the information you need to help you really understand your little one’s sleep and how to help them achieve more predictable naps and restful nights – all from your own computer, phone or tablet whenever it suits you.
Early Days & Foundations of Sleep: 0-5 Months
This course will teach you how you can work towards great sleep habits, without ‘sleep training.’ It provides gentle solutions for settling and works towards the end goal of a settled night’s sleep, whilst understanding and responding to your baby’s needs.
Sleep Success: 6-9 Months
This course covers a range of topics including the science of sleep, sleep associations, creating a great sleep environment, a suggested daily routine and a choice of settling methods including how to make gradual changes. The course will lead you through step by step how to create your own sleep plan to support your baby to sleep in their own sleep space.
Sleep Success: 10-18 Months
This course covers a range of topics including the science of sleep, sleep associations, creating a great sleep environment, a suggested daily routine, the transition from two naps to one and a choice of settling methods including how to make gradual changes. The course will lead you through step by step how to create your own sleep plan to support your baby to sleep in their own sleep space.
Sleep Success: 1.5 – 4 years
This course which covers a range of topics including the science of sleep, sleep associations, creating a great sleep environment, potential sleep disturbances in this age group, a suggested daily routine, the transition from cot to bed, dropping the daytime nap, early waking and a choice of settling methods including how to make gradual changes. The course will lead you through step by step how to create your own sleep plan.