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Toddler nightmares vs night terrors

toddlernightmaresvsnightterrorsThere’s nothing worse than seeing your little one scared.

When they run in to your room in the middle of the night terrified of a nightmare, your heart just breaks for them.

Sometimes though, your little one can experience night terrors, which are a different thing altogether.

So how can we help them through these nightmares? And what are the differences between nightmares and night terrors?

Nightmares can start from as young as two years old, and usually peak at around three to six years old. You can never tell when or how often your child is going to have nightmares, so it is best to prepare yourself for when they do occur.

So what can you do to help your toddler cope with nightmares?

Firstly, you can make their sleep space as safe and comforting as possible to try reduce the likelihood of them having a nightmare.

  • Have a regular bed time routine, including soothing and calming activities such as having a nice bath, reading a happy story, and some goodnight cuddles.
  • Make sure their bed is cosy and peaceful, and give them a special blanket or toy that makes them feel safe. A night-light is a good option if they are scared of the dark.
  • Don’t involve scary things in the lead up to bed time, such as movies, TV shows, books, or stories.

If your child still experiences a nightmare after you do the above, the most important thing to remember is that nightmares are not real, they cannot hurt you, and go away as soon as you wake up – and it is crucial to make sure your child knows this.

Just being there for your child will help settle them – as with any other stress or fear, your child will be calmed simply by your presence.

Let them know that it is okay that they were scared, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling scared. Reassure them though, that the scary things were only in the nightmare, and they don’t exist in their waking life. Check under the bed and in the wardrobe for them if need be.

You don’t need to talk too much about the details of their nightmare as soon as it’s happened – it would still be scary in the middle of the night. If your child wants to talk about it in the morning, this can be therapeutic in getting the images of the nightmare out in daylight hours, thus dispelling the fear those images hold.

How are nightmares different to night terrors?

Sometimes the nightmares your child has are extreme, and cross into the area of “night terrors”. These are another kettle of fish altogether. Night terrors are a physical sleep disorder affecting around 5% of children under five years old.

This disorder causes children to make exaggerated movements a couple of hours into their sleep. They can bolt upright, kick and scream like they’re hurt or in huge pain, sometimes make noises or mumble, all with their eyes open. It usually lasts for 5-10 minutes, though extend up to 45 minutes, depending on the child. Night terrors are believed to be caused by electrical currents in the brain trying to rouse the child, but only getting them out of deep sleep, not all the way awake.

The most important factor to remember – they are not in pain, and are not aware of their actions at all. As harrowing and excruciating as it may be to see your little one in this state, it is vitally important to know this. They won’t remember anything having happened at all, and their energy levels will be completely normal in the morning. It’s the parents who usually come out worse for wear after these episodes – and it’s good to have a place to vent or find support for the morning after.

No cause has been found as yet as to why these night terrors occur, though a genetic link has been made. They are a type of parasomnia – a medical classification including sleep walking, sleep talking, teeth grinding, body rocking, and head banging. There is usually a direct blood relative who suffered from some sort of parasomnia in childhood. It is rare that a child will experience night terrors without a familial link to someone who had or has a parasomnia.

The next question is, obviously, how can you help them through a night terror? The simplest answer is you can’t. Generally speaking, trying to touch or pick up a child who is experiencing a night terror will make matters worse. This is why night terrors are so distressing for parents. While the child will wake up fully refreshed, thinking they’ve had a peaceful sleep, the parent has been awake for hours trying to come to terms with seeing their little one thrashing about. This is very counter-intuitive, but trying to console them won’t help.

There are two different approaches to dealing with the night terrors – the hands-off approach, and the waking approach. Generally you would start with the former, and move to the latter if that doesn’t work.

The hands-off approach

Instead of running in to the child and trying to touch/pick up/console/wake them, go slow. Walk in, being as quiet and calm as possible, and just stand at the doorway or in the corner. Your child can’t hear you if your say anything, so just stay silent. Don’t attempt to touch them at all, and just watch that they safely pass through the episode. You would only be in the room to make sure they fall back into deep sleep safely, and aren’t hurt if their movements are particularly wild. Night terrors usually pass in about a month with no intervention.

Once you’ve gone for longer than a month or so without them stopping, move on to the next approach.

The waking approach

This will only work if there is some regularity with the timing of your child’s night terrors. If they have a night terror at 11pm every night, for example, you would go into their room and wake them up 20-30 minutes earlier, at 10.30-10.40pm. Wake the child up all the way, give them some water or take them to the toilet, and then send them back to sleep. This should counter the electrical current that causes them to par-wake and have a night terror. After about a week of this approach, the night terrors should stop altogether.

If they don’t occur at a regular time each night, this will be difficult to predict and thus the waking approach may not work effectively in stopping the night terrors.

Sleep deprivation (even minimal deprivation) can exacerbate the night terrors, though only in children who already have them. Making sure your child gets enough sleep via naps can help with this.

If you are concerned that the night terrors are not going away, are getting worse, or that there may be another sleep disorder involved, consult your doctor for help with managing and “curing” them of the night terrors. Examples of sleep disorders are Sleep Disordered Breathing (SDB) where the child can snore frequently or have sleep apnoea, among other things, or Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) where the child is restless when asleep and often writhe or kick about while asleep, and can be restless during the day as well. Consulting a sleep clinic can help to manage other disorders as well.

While nightmares cannot be stopped and are harmless except in scaring your child, night terrors generally stop in about a month, though carry the possibility that your child could hurt themselves if their movements are wild enough. Remember to ensure your children know nightmares are not real and can’t hurt them, and also remember that night terrors are not hurting your child or making them lose any sleep.

Note: this article is not intended to replace medical advice. If you have concerns about your child’s sleep, or night terrors, please consult a medical professional.

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2 comments so far -

  1. My daughter has been experiencing night terrors for more than a year, but they started being daily occurrences two hours (almost like clockwork ) after she fell asleep. Was so draining! So did a bit of trawling around on the net & made three changes. No tv after 5:00pm, rescue remedy “sleep” before bed & giving her a sense of calm & unconditional love (rather than the usual “you can’t need to pee again!! You went ten mins ago!!..etc”). And ten days in…no more night terrors! Hallelujah!

  2. My DS has been having night terrors for about a week. At first we thought they were bad nightmares, it is almost a relief to know what is going on! Now that I know he isn’t distressed or upset at all I can cope better. Will try the tips re sleep-try and stop the excited play with dad before sleep…. hmmm… fingers crossed!



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