Children spend more time dreaming than adults do, so they have more dreams—both good and bad. What is the difference between a nightmare and a night terror? Additionally, what should you do in each situation?
Nightmares are bad dreams that happen during rapid eye movement (REM) or dream sleep. Your child may be afraid to fall back asleep, and he’ll probably remember that he had a bad dream. A baby or child who had a nightmare is likely to have a clear idea of what scared him, although he probably will not be able to vocalize his fright until he’s about 2 years old.
The best responses to a nightmare are:
- Be there and offer comfort.
- Stay with your child until she feels relaxed and ready to sleep.
- Stay calm and convey to your child that what’s happening is normal and that all is well.
- Reassure your child that she’s safe and that it’s OK to go back to sleep.
- If your child wakes with a nightmare, stay with her until she feels relaxed and ready to go to sleep.
The best way to prevent future nightmares is to help your child confront and overcome his fears of the dark, such as leaving a nightlight on or having a special stuffed toy to sleep with.
Night terrors occur in at least 5% of young children and can start as early as 9 months. These mysterious disturbances happen during deep, non-dreaming sleep. When a child is having a night terror, they will cry, whimper, flail, and even bolt out of bed.
Although his eyes may be wide open, he’s not awake and isn’t aware of your presence. Night terrors can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, or more. Once it is over, your child will return to a sound sleep, and he will have no memory of the incident in the morning.
The best responses to night terrors are:
- Give him a gentle pat, along with comforting words or “shhh” sounds.
- Make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.
- Don’t speak to him, ask him questions, or try to hold or soothe him.
- Don’t try to shake or startle him awake or physically restrain him—all of which could lead to more frantic behavior.
If it’s a night terror, in 15 to 20 minutes, your child should calm down, curl up, and fall into a deep sleep again. If it’s a nightmare, he might need a little more time to calm down and go back to sleep. To prevent night terrors, make sure that he is getting enough sleep, since children who go to bed overtired are more likely to experience these types of sleep disturbances.
I hope this was helpful!
Much love, Diana-