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Nightmares and Night Terrors: The Difference and How Parents Can Help Kids Get Through the Night

As parents, we are faced with many challenges when it comes to our children, and few are as confusing or distressing as when your child experiences a terrifying nightmare or, worse yet, a night terror.
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As parents, we are faced with many challenges when it comes to our children, and few are as confusing or distressing as when your child experiences a terrifying nightmare or, worse yet, a night terror. Nightmares and night terrors are different kinds of sleep disturbances. Let's look at each of these sleep issues and how you can help your child deal with them.


A nightmare is a distressing, vivid dream in which the child experiences fear, anxiety or other strong emotions. Nightmares usually force the child awake. A common theme is being chased, and children often remember their nightmares. They most often occur during REM sleep, according to The National Sleep Foundation.

Nightmares -- How You Can Help Your Child

First, cuddle your child and encourage him or her to discuss the nightmare with you. Some children will eagerly relate all the details, and you can be supportive with such statements as, "I know how scary that must have been, but...." Other positive approaches include when a parent "talks" with the frightening dream character or creates a new ending to the nightmare. Injecting humor, as in making a joke about the frightening character's polka dot underwear, works well with some children. The idea is to talk with your child until he or she feels safer and is less frightened.

If your child is having trouble verbalizing their dream, the next morning you can have them draw a picture of the nightmare and then discuss about what you see.

Children experiencing nightmares generally do not need treatment. However, if your child is suffering from recurrent or very disturbing nightmares, talk to your pediatrician.

Night Terrors

Night terrors differ from nightmares and can be more alarming. Unlike children who experience nightmares, the child who has a sleep terror episode remains in a sleep state. In addition, night terrors often are paired with sleepwalking, according to The Mayo Clinic. A sleep terror episode usually lasts from seconds to a few minutes, but they can last up to an hour. They occur early in the night during non-REM sleep, according to The National Sleep Foundation.

Sleep terror symptoms may include arousal, agitation, large pupils, sweating and increased blood pressure. Your child's eyes may be open during the episode. Sometimes, a child screams and appears terrified for several minutes until they relax and return to sleep.

Night Terrors -- How You Can Help Your Child

If your child is experiencing a night terror, stay calm, and don't try to wake the child -- they are in a deep sleep. Cuddle your child, if he or she will allow it. Wait it out -- it should pass within minutes and they will go back to a calm sleep. Do not allow anyone to tell you that nothing can be done about night terrors -- that is simply untrue. Night terrors can be triggered by stress, food or activity on a particular day. It's really important to keep a log of your child's sleep, food and activity on a daily basis. Analyze the information, and the answer as to what is causing your child to have night terrors should stand out. If your child has sleep terrors that concern you and you can't find the root cause, or if sleep terrors lead to dangerous behavior or persist beyond the teen years, consult your pediatrician. Share the log you've been keeping with your doctor.

A Calming Bedtime Routine for All Children

A calming bedtime routine can help children relax and may help them avoid nightmares and night terrors. Here are some sleep tips I recommend: • Don't let your child get over-tired. Establish a sleep time routine (bedtime and wake time) and stick with it -- even on the weekends. Make sure your child is getting the amount of sleep he or she needs. Children have the most restorative sleep if sleep is predictable. • Initiate a calming routine about an hour before bedtime. The routine should include relaxing activities, like listening to soft music, reading to and/or bathing your child. Avoid letting your child use electronic devices during this time, and remove them from the child's bedroom to avoid temptation. • Keep the bedroom cool and comfortable. The best temperature for sleep is between 68 and 72 degrees. • Don't engage your child after you finish your bedtime routine. Tuck them in, give them a kiss and be off. Your calm and assured attitude will make your child feel secure. Nightmares, night terrors or any sleep disturbance can be troubling. But, parents who exhibit a calm, confident attitude actually reassure a child and make them feel secure. If your child is experiencing sleep problems, try some of the strategies outlined here. If problems persist, speak with your pediatrician and consider speaking with a therapist as well.