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A Parent’s Guide to Nightmares and Night Terrors

When your child wakes in the middle of the night seeking comfort from you because of a bad dream it can be difficult to calm them, reassuring them that there’s no need to fret. Nightmares inevitably come and go, but night terrors are an altogether different thing, and may need a little more attention when it comes to your little one.

What is the difference between nightmares and night terrors?


Nightmares are best described as a disagreeable dream that causes stress and anxiety upon waking. They typically happen during the REM stage of sleep although they can occur during other sleep stages too. Nightmares are most common in children aged between three and six but older children and adults can experience nightmares in times of stress too.

What causes nightmares in children?

Vivid nightmares in infants can often be triggered by something that’s bothering them – perhaps they’ve seen or heard something that’s frightened them or caused them to worry. This event could have happened in reality or it could be make-believe, and upon awaking it is often likely that your child will accurately recall the events of their nightmare.

How to deal with nightmares in children

Upon waking from a nightmare, the best thing you can do for your child is reassure them, and stay with them until they feel calm and comfortable enough to go back to bed. The next morning you may want to discuss what their nightmare was about to discover if there is an underlying issue that’s worrying them and manifesting as bad dreams.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are very different to nightmares, and can be recognised by certain behaviours such as sitting up in bed, shouting, kicking, or sudden movements. During a night terror, staring wide-eyed is commonplace. Sleepwalking can often occur, and some people experiencing night terrors may also breathe heavily, have an increased pulse rate and sweat profusely.

Sweating in bed is not uncommon but if your child is experiencing night sweats read our advice on night sweats in children for more information.

The main difference between nightmares and night terrors is that during a night terror your child will still be in a state of sleep, unaware of their physical actions, and equally unaware of what has happened upon waking.

What causes sleep terror disorder?

There is no definitive reason why night terrors occur. Some research suggests sleep terror disorder runs in families but these episodes can also be caused by stress experienced throughout the day. Night terrors in infants can be triggered by an inconsistent sleep routine or tiredness. However, some children may not be under any stress at all and still experience night terrors. Night terrors in children do not necessarily mean that they are experiencing a psychological problem but dealing with them can certainly still be stressful and unnerving for you.

How to deal with night terrors in children

When your child is experiencing a night terror, remember:
  • Do not try to wake them during the episode as this can cause more confusion and a heightened sense of anxiety as they will not recognise you.
  • If they are putting themselves in any danger throughout the episode, then that is the time to put yourself between them and the danger.
  • If they do begin to sleepwalk or move, talking calmly to them can be a better way of controlling the episode.
  • Try to guide them back to their bed if possible. Otherwise, stay with them to ensure their safety and until they go back to bed on their own.

If your child wakes during an episode…
  • It is unlikely they will awaken during the episode, but if they do wake up in the middle of a night terror they will inevitably be confused and may need comforting.
  • Be patient if they are having trouble communicating or recognising who you are, as it may take some time for them to calm down.

Some preventative techniques that may help
  • Once the episode has finished and your child has gone back to sleep soundly, they may return to a deep sleep. This is when night terrors are most likely to occur so waking them fully once the episode is over can help to reduce the chance of night terrors reoccurring.
  • Night terrors in children are most likely to occur when they’re tired. Ensure they have a regular, consistent bed time routine to decrease the possibility of night terrors occurring.

Visit your doctor if:
  • The symptoms of night terrors in your child are becoming worse and more violent.
  • You suspect the night terrors may be a side effect of medication.
  • Nightmares or night terrors are impacting your child’s day.

Looking for more advice on sleep issues? Take a look at our Sleep Health and Advice Hub for more on common sleep issues and how to deal with them.

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