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Nightmares vs Night Terrors

When a child suddenly becomes scared to go to sleep at night, parents naturally wonder what is causing it. There are 2 totally different but equally scary nocturnal phenomenons commonly seen in children and here we help you understand the difference.


What are they?

These are bad dreams that can leave children feeling scared or distressed. They consist of images that represent real (someone dying) or imagined (monsters under the bed) dangers and fears.

Why do they occur?

Nightmares are most often seen in people who have good imaginations! If they are recurrent they may be symptomatic of a stressor in the child’s environment that they are unable to cope with. It is the brains way of sifting through and dealing with unprocessed worries that may be there. Nightmares can be caused by some medications as well.

When do they occur?

In general, children younger than 2 do not get nightmares. Between the ages of 3 and 6 children are the most frightened by the nightmares. These dreams occur in the second half of the night towards the end of their sleep.

How should I deal with them?

Your child will only want you for reassurance and if it has woken them from sleep, they may take some time to settle. Acknowledge that their fears are real but remind them it was only a dream and reassure them that all is well. If they are older than 4 they can start to understand the difference between real and imagined so it is worth explaining both concepts to them. Avoid the triggers that you suspect may be causing nightmares eg certain movies. Adapt bedtime routine if recurrent to include reassurances such as doors open and nightlights on. Make sure your child has a chance each day to talk about their worries.

Night terrors

What are they?

A night terror is an episode of extreme agitation that occurs during a child’s sleep. They affect approximately 15% of children (more common in boys) and can occur in adults too occassionaly. There are no mental images and so children have no recollection in the morning. For parents it can be scary as children look like they are awake but are actually fast asleep. Night terrors can cause children to shout out / sit up/ thrash around or appear distressed. WHY DOTHEY HAPPEN? They are a reaction to the fear of transitioning from one sleep stage to the next. In other words they are stuck between being awake and asleep. A night terror rarely is a reaction to an external factor such as medication, sleep apnoea or stress and is more often is simply a part of their brain maturing.

When do they occur?

Night terrors are most common in children aged between 4 and 12 although there have been reports in children as young as 18 months. They occur when children are in a very deep sleep and so usually this is 2-3 hours after going to sleep. Some children will only experience this once and for others it may continue until the brain develops it’s capacity to transition between stages of sleep.

How should I deal with them?

Don’t try to wake your child – they will be very disorientated and it will take them a long time to resettle. Rather just ensure their safety and gently sit and reassure that everything is ok. Try to prevent your child being overtired as this is a trigger. Although, night terrors are not caused by stress, it is advisable to minimise external factors such as starting something new eg toilet training which may increase the frequency of the episodes.

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Meet Ariella Lew

The Founder and Director of Kids on Track Consultancy and a qualified paediatric nurse. Ariella offers expert advice and management strategies to families locally and worldwide, specialising in behaviour and development support for children. With extensive experience in parenting guidance, including areas like disability and chronic illness, Ariella collaborates with schools and allied health professionals to create personalised plans. Leading a dedicated team, she ensures families receive optimal support, including assistance with accessing the NDIS.

Ariella’s compassionate approach empowers families to navigate challenges confidently, providing tailored solutions for their unique needs.

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