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Night Terrors and Nightmares


child with head on pillow sleeping soundly



Night terrors and nightmares are different. Here are some ways to tell them apart and ideas for helping your child.

Night terrors

Night terrors happen during the first few hours of sleep, when your child is sleeping very deeply. One minute your child may be sleeping like an angel, the next they may be screaming and thrashing about – this is a night terror. Night terrors can be scary for you, but they don’t hurt or scare your child.

Children having night terrors might sit or stand up, shake, move around and cry or scream loudly. They might look like they’re in extreme panic. A child having a night terror is inconsolable and won’t respond to soothing or comforting.

During a night terror, your child’s eyes might be open, they might be moving or thrashing about, but they’re actually still in a state of deep sleep.

They can last from a few minutes up to 40 minutes. Night terrors are natural events associated with the normal development of sleep in children. Night terrors can run in families, so there might be a genetic component to whether children will experience them.

Did you know?
Night terrors seem scary to you, but they don’t harm your child. Children don’t remember them in the morning and aren’t aware of having had a bad dream or a fright.

What to do if your child has night terrors

  • Avoid waking your child during a night terror. A child having a night terror will only be confused and disorientated if woken, and might take longer to settle.
  • Wait for your child to stop thrashing around. Guide your child back to bed (if she got out) and tuck her in. Children will usually settle back to sleep quickly at this stage. If you think your child might get hurt, stay close to guide her away from hitting or bumping the walls, bed or other obstacles.
  • You don’t need to be concerned about night terrors. They don’t mean there’s anything wrong with your child.

Did you know?
Children usually experience night terrors between the ages of 18 months and six years. Children grow out of night terrors as they develop more mature forms of deep sleep.

When to get help

If night terrors seem prolonged or violent or are occurring along with other sleeping difficulties – or your child also has breathing problems, such as snoring – talk with your doctor.


Nightmares tend to happen in the second half of the night, during phases of REM sleep. Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause children to wake in fear and distress. Your child might have nightmares about:

  • a realistic danger, such as aggressive dogs, sharks or spiders; or
  • imaginary fears, such as monsters.

Nightmares are very common. Providing comfort and reassurance to your child when they wake from a nightmare is important.

Depending on their language ability, children can often recall the content of a bad dream in detail. Some younger children might find it hard to get back to sleep after a nightmare.

As children get older, they’ll get better at understanding that a dream is just a dream. By seven, your child might be able to deal with nightmares without calling you for comfort.

Tips for dealing with nightmares

If your child wakes up because of a nightmare, explain that it was a bad dream. Reassure your child that everything is OK and they are safe. A kiss and a cuddle might help your child settle again.

If your preschool-age child has dreamed about monsters, you could try explaining that monsters are make-believe and that made-up things might be scary, but they can’t really hurt children. Avoid making fun of the nightmare or saying your child is silly for worrying. Nightmares can seem very real to little children.

If your child talks about a nightmare the next day, be patient. Listen to your child’s worries – don’t dismiss or downplay them. But if your child seems to have forgotten all about a nightmare, it’s probably best not to raise the topic.

If your child is dreaming about the same things over and over again (a recurrent nightmare), explore sources of stress or fright in your child’s day. You might gently ask your child about encounters with other children, television shows or other daytime experiences. If you can work out the source of the nightmares, you can take measures to stop or reduce your child’s exposure to the disturbing events.

What causes nightmares?

The occasional nightmare isn’t a sign of emotional disturbance and need not be cause for concern. In fact, nightmares are often the product of a vivid imagination.

But if your child is having a recurrent nightmare, or the content of the dream is particularly disturbing, he might be experiencing some kind of stress during the day.

Trauma can also cause nightmares. If a child has experienced some type of trauma, she might have nightmares about it for several weeks or months afterwards.

Getting help

It can be a good idea to seek professional advice if your child is experiencing nightmares together with high levels of anxiety during the day. Also seek help if nightmares are part of your child’s response to a traumatic event.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

Health Link BC: Sleep: Helping Your Children—and Yourself—Sleep Well


Last Updated: November 30, 2014