Nightmares and night terrors

Nightmares are frightening dreams that usually wake your child. In a night terror your child suddenly becomes agitated, perhaps crying or screaming, looking panicked, sweating and inconsolable – however, this does not usually wake
your child.

Although they seem similar, there are differences in why they happen and how best to manage them.

Nightmares vs night terrors

They are both common in children and usually don’t mean anything is wrong. They are more likely to happen if your child is sick or overtired.

1. Nightmares are frightening dreams that usually wake your child
2. Usually happen after midnight
3. Remembered next morning in light sleep
4. Your child wakes up fully
5. Your child may be upset and want to be comforted Night terrors:
1. From a deep sleep, your child suddenly becomes agitated perhaps crying, looking panicked, sweating and inconsolable
2. Usually happen before midnight
3. Not remembered next morning
4. Between deep & light sleep cycles
5. Your child’s body is awake but their mind is not
6. Your child may be inconsolable, not responding to soothing or comforting.

Managing nightmares

Some tips on what to do when your child has a nightmare:

1. Comfort your child: Talk to them quietly and give them a hug. Following most nightmares, your child will be reassured by a few minutes of comfort.
Let them know that you are nearby and will make sure that they are safe and secure. Most children are still tired after a nightmare and will fall back to sleep.

2. Give your child a security object: A soft toy or blanket that your child can keep in bed can help them feel more relaxed through the night.

3. Leaving the light on: If your child asks to have a light on, put it on the lowest setting possible or use a night light so that your child can fall back to sleep.

4. If happening often, discuss it the next day: Most of the time nightmares are events with little meaning, but if your child begins to have them often, it can be helpful to figure out what is worrying them.

5. Encourage the use of imagination: Some children do well using their imagination to reassure themselves. For example, your child could draw pictures of their bad dreams and then throw them away, or try to imagine different endings to their nightmares.

Talk to your health professional

If your child’s nightmares are severe, meaning that they happen often and are causing anxiety problems for your child during the day and at bedtime, speak to your family GP.

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