Nightmares and night terrors are very common in children, particularly between the ages of about three and eight. Although they can both be distressing for you and your child, there are some important differences between these sleep disorders in children.
Nightmares are very common and they aren’t usually a sign of serious sleep disorders in children. All children will have the occasional nightmare. Sometimes it is obvious that they are dreaming about something scary they have encountered in a story or on TV. In other cases, a nightmare can be a sign that your child is feeling worried or upset about something. However, sometimes nightmares just happen with no apparent cause. The best you can do then is simply to listen if your child wants to describe the nightmare and to provide comfort and reassurance that it isn’t real.
Night terrors are less common than nightmares, but they are much more distressing for both you and your child. During a night terror, your child may scream out loud or start thrashing around without waking up. Sometimes a child will actually sit up and start talking in their sleep. Although this can be very frightening to watch, night terrors aren’t dangerous sleep disorders and they won’t cause any long-term problems. Most children will simply grow out of them.
As well as being more severe than nightmares, night terrors also tend to keep happening. Many children will experience night terrors at about the same time every night usually a couple of hours after they have fallen asleep. One way of breaking this pattern is to wake your child about a quarter of an hour before the night terrors will begin. Simply keeping your child awake for a few minutes before letting them drop back into sleep can prevent night terrors from happening. Often they won’t even remember having been woken up.