Night Terrors vs Nightmares

Most parents have seen some sort of night waking event in their child’s young life that wasn’t about feeding or changing their diaper. They will wonder what’s happening…Is it teething? Is it pain? Are they sick? What can I do to help the crying or screaming stop?!

What you need to do depends on whether or not it’s a nightmare or a night terror. They are 2 very different events, and each should be handled differently. So how can you know which your child is experiencing? Let’s compare the two…

Night Terrors:

-Happen during non-REM sleep (within the first few hours of falling asleep)

-Child will be in a partial awakening state and not really be awake when he/she wakes at night

-Child will call out in general, not actually calling for anyone specifically

-Child will not be able to talk to you or they won’t make much sense if they do talk

-Child will often not want you to touch him/her and may actually become more upset if you do

-In the end the child will just end up calming down on their own in a few minutes and will then return to sleep as if nothing happened

-Child will show physical signs, such as an increased heart rate and blood pressure

-More frightening for the parent than the child, who will not recall it ever happening in the morning

Nightmares:

-Happen during REM sleep (within a few hours of waking for the day)

-Child wakes up frightened and can remember the dream

-Child will be in a fully awake state, being alert and able to talk to you at that moment

-Child will appreciate and need comforting to return to sleep

-Child will usually call out specifically for you, looking for and needing help and reassurance

-Child’s reaction will be more of a mental one, with limited or no physical changes

-More frightening for the child, who can be affected by it for days, weeks, or even months.

Most children will not experience either of these until after a year old, though it can happen earlier. Both can be the result of over tiredness, which is an important fact to remember. If your child is often waking up in the first few hours after going to sleep with what appears to be night terrors, then you want to take a look at the time your child is going to bed at night and what their daytime naps look like. Chances are good that there’s a lack of sleep somewhere in their day that is causing these wakings. Fix that and you should see the terrors go away. Also, I have seen what I call “day terrors” happening at nap times for some children. They’re more prevalent when your child is transitioning down a nap, or is otherwise sleep deprived.

If your child is waking often with nightmares, I would talk to them (in the morning) about what their dream was about. Take a look at what they’re watching or doing during the day that might be causing these bad dreams. It might not be an obvious thing to you, so try to think like a child the same age as yours. For instance, my one daughter had her first real nightmare at age 5 years. She was terrified by it and could hardly go back to sleep that night or the following nights. When I did a little digging into what it was about, I found out it was about monsters chasing her. Sounds common, right? Yes, but the more I dug, the more I discovered that it wasn’t just any old monster. She described one that she’d seen earlier that day on Scooby Doo. I was shocked to think that a TV show I grew up watching could cause my daughter to be so scared, but it did make sense. There are monsters in every episode! After that we cut out watching the show at all and she got better over the next week or two.

It’s important to realize that a particular cartoon can be watched by two children and each to be affected differently. If you have a sensitive, fearful child, then cartoons like Scooby Doo will have a much greater impact on your child than another child. For me, I quickly found out that my daughter is very sensitive to scary things and has a lot of anxiety about random things that always comes out at night for her. On the other hand, her identical twin sister does not have this same issue with going to bed. Instead she tends to have anxiety about things during the day hours but will has no problem letting go of those thoughts at night. Again, it’s important to understand your child’s temperament and personality.

So the take away is this…if your child wakes crying (but not really talking) in the first half of the night, it’s likely a night terror. You’re not going to do much but ensure your child doesn’t hurt themselves during the “fit” (which could take up to 20mins). If it’s happening in the second half of the night and your child is screaming for you, clutching you, and visibly frightened, then you know it’s a nightmare. Be prepared to do some extra snuggling that night…and maybe the next few nights too!

Sleep well,

Ronee Welch

Sleeptastic Solutions

*Need help with nightmares or night terrors? Need help getting your child to sleep independently through the night? Need help with naps? Need your child to sleep later in the morning? Need help transitioning your child from a rock-n-play or bouncer to their crib or from their crib to a bed? Need help with breastfeeding? If you need help with any of these things, or any other sleep-related issue, I can help!

I offer free 15min phone assessments so you can tell me more about what is happening with your little one and for you to ask me some questions. If you’d like to set up a time for your free chat, please click HERE. If you’d like to find out more about the services I offer, please visit www.sleeptasticsolutions.com.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *