Nightmares and Night Terrors

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Often times I hear parents say that their child is struggling with night terrors. It seems as though there is a misunderstanding about what constitutes nightmares and a night terror. In order to know how to help your child, it is essential to know if they are having nightmares or night terrors.


A nightmare is a scary dream that feels very real to your child. Your child may feel like the dream is actually taking place and they may wake up feeling afraid. Nightmares typically occur in the later portion of the night when your child is in REM sleep phases. Often times, nightmares may increase in severity during periods of stress or change. Nightmares may even be the result of actual fears your child has. Television shows, movies or video games may trigger nightmares as well. If your child is experiencing a nightmare, I encourage you to go to your child and comfort them while they recuperate from this scary dream. Reassure your child and let them know they are safe, they are just having a bad dream and everything is OK.

If you are noticing that nightmares are becoming more frequent, try to find out if there is an underlying issue that is causing these nightmares. Limit/monitor screen time if you think this may e contributing to their nightmares as well. A lot of shows or video games seem harmless to us, but to a small child they can be quite frightening.

Nightmares may increase in severity if your family is going through loss, trauma or change. If your family is experiencing any of the above, I suggest trying to sick to your routine as much as possible. Routines are very comforting and reassuring to children.

Nightmare spray

I found a really cool idea on Pinterest. The idea is to fill a spray bottle with water or even leave it empty. Every night before your child goes to bed, they spray their room with “nightmare spray”. This helps keep nightmares away and at the very least, it helps them to feel in control.

Night terrors

Night terrors are very different from nightmares because if your child is experiencing one, they are caught between a stage of sleep and consciousness. They occur in the earlier part of the evening and are a type of parasomnia. Night terrors are similar to sleepwalking or sleep talking and your child may seem very confused. During a night terror, your child may be crying and are often inconsolable. Night terrors are more common in boys than girls between the ages of 4-8. During a night terror, your child’s mind is asleep and their body is “awake”.

While nightmares may be remembered the next day, night terrors typically are not remembered. In fact, your child will likely not even notice that you are there to comfort them because they are “stuck” between deep stages of sleep and light stages of sleep. The good news is that they do not remember this panicky stage. The tough news is that there is very little you can do to comfort your child while they experience a night terror. You may actually make things words by intervening because they just need time to “come around”.

What can you do to help?

What can you do if your little one is experiencing night terrors? Ensure that your child is getting adequate sleep. The number one reason for night wakings is being overtired. If your child is having fragmented sleep, this will make their nightmares or terrors worse. Because children thrive on routines, stick to a calming bedtime routine every night. Children find routines comforting because they can predict what will happen next. When they know what comes next, they feel safe and secure and this makes bedtime feel safe as well.

A lack of sleep can trigger both night terrors and nightmares – another reason for an early bedtime! Try moving bedtime earlier in 15-minute intervals until you find the perfect bedtime. A lot of the time I see toddlers and young children going to bed as late as 9 pm. This is way too late for them. Toddlers and children need A LOT of sleep. I have included my sleep chart to refer to so you know just how much sleep your little one requires.

Pashionate About Sleep - sleep chart

Something to be mindful of

Children are VERY smart. It is important to comfort your child and provide reassurance when your child is experiencing a nightmare. Your child will quickly learn that if they say they are scared, this equals a sleepover with mommy and daddy. This can then cause habits that you do not want to continue on with. I suggest providing comfort and explaining your child’s fear to them. Children are very smart and understand more than we may think they understand. If you educate them about their fears, it takes power away from the nightmare.

Essentially you want to provide comfort while at the same time maintaining firm sleep boundaries.