The Things That Go Bump In The Night

 In Night Wakings, Sleep Disturbances

Night terrors and nightmares are something that nearly every child will experience. They, all too often are much more frightening for the parent than they are for the child. There is nothing worse than waking in the night to a blood curdling scream coming from your child’s room.

Knowing the difference between these two night time disruptions is key to determine the best way to handle them.


Nightmares occur during REM sleep, which happens near the end of our sleep cycle. They are a normal part of development, peaking between  two – three years of age. Children of this age have HUGE imaginations, which is wonderful to watch during their play, but also has the potential to spark some fears in the night. They have a hard time understanding the difference between what is fantasy and what is reality. When children have a nightmare, they will seek comfort from their disturbing dream. They will also recognize you and will be able to recall the nightmare, and tell you a little about what has frightened them. It may take awhile for them to fall back asleep and get the scary thoughts out of their minds. Nightmares are most common after frightening encounters, big life events, or when re-living a trauma.

Here’s how to cut down on nightmares:

1| Boycott the scary stuff – avoid exposure to frightening or overstimulating videos, books, tv shows etc. this is especially important leading up to bedtime.

2| Don’t play scary games.

3| Reduce stressors – persistent nightmares can be an indication of stress. Deep breathing and relaxation strategies incorporated into a child’s day and during bedtime routine can be helpful.

4| Reassure them all is well. Go to your child and offer them love and support.Ensure they are calm and confident that all is well before leaving their room.

5| Help your child get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can increase nightmares.

6| Add a nightlight to your child’s room. Avoid anything too bright and make sure that it is a yellow or red light so that it doesn’t interfere with their melatonin production.

7| Check with your pediatrician to make sure your child is not on any medications that might be interfering with his night sleep.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are different from nightmares in both the symptoms and the experience. When a child is experiencing a night terror he may scream and appear anxious. He may not even recognize you when you go to him. You may also find him sweating and/or have a racing heartbeat. A child who is having a night terror is often inconsolable. The episode usually lasts between five and fifteen minutes. It is often more upsetting for the parent or others around them, than they are for the child. Children do not usually remember having the night terror the next morning. Night terrors occur during NON-REM sleep and usually occur within two hours of going to sleep. Night terrors are not bad dreams. In fact, they don’t occur during dream sleep at all.

Night terrors are most common between the ages of two and five, and occur in 3% of all children. Sometimes they occur when your kid is working on a developmental milestone. Your child is more likely to have night terrors if either parent had them as a child, or if either parent had a partial arousal sleep disorder such as sleepwalking. The most common cause of night terrors is sleep deprivation or a disturbance in a child’s sleep patterns—like traveling to different time zones, a new home or a later bedtime. They can also coincide with sleep apnea and fevers.

Here are some tips on how to handle night terrors.

1| If your child is having a night terror, monitor the child but try not to interfere, as this can worsen the episode. Its best not to wake them. Guide your child back to bed and encourage them to settle back to sleep.

2| Make sure your child is physically safe during the night terror and speak calmly to them. You may need to install baby gates at the top and bottom of staircases, add low lighting in hallways, and remove clutter from their bedroom.

3| Put your child to bed earlier. Bedtime should be between 7:00 – 8:00 pm.

4|Keep a regular sleep schedule and ensure adequate amounts of sleep.

5|Don’t talk about the terror with your child in the morning. This will just likely worry your child which may lead to another episode.

If your child is having night terrors two to three times a week at set times during the night (i.e. 2 hours after going to sleep) try the following:

  • Keep track of your kid’s sleep patterns for 1 week.
  • Ensure they are getting the recommended amount of sleep for their age.
  • Gently rouse your child 15-30 minutes prior to the time he usually has an episode.
  • Do this every night for 10-14 nights in a row and you will most likely see the episodes start to diminish.

Nightmares and night terrors differ greatly in what is going on for your child and the way in which parents should respond. Understanding the difference between nightmares and night terrors is important so that you’ll be able to help your child appropriately.

Sweet Dreams.
Recent Posts
baby boy, christmas, holidays