Getting your child to sleep through the night is an accomplishment for many parents, but there are two unfortunate events that can occur and destroy this night time bliss – nightmares and night terrors.
It's easy to assume that these are one and the same, and they can each be caused by the same things; however, they are very different.
Though most children will grow out of both nightmares and night terrors, they can be scary and frustrating for both the child and parent which is why it's important to understand what they are, how to deal with them when they occur and what can be done to prevent or reduce them.
What's the difference between night terrors and nightmares?
They may sound similar, yet there are some very clear distinctions to be made between night terrors and nightmares.
A night terror is an episode that involves screaming and crying during sleep and is often related to sleepwalking. A child who suffers from night terrors may even thrash around, panic or jump out of bed during an episode, but it's important to understand that they are not fully awake when this happening (even though their eyes will be open), so it is causing them no real harm – they will not even have any recollection of it in the morning.
Night terrors usually occur quite early on into the sleep and can last up to 15 minutes and can even occur multiple times in one night.
A nightmare, on the other hand, is a scary dream that causes the child to wake from their sleep crying/screaming or feeling too afraid to go back into their room, or even to go back to sleep at all.
Being that nightmares are a type of dream, children will most likely be able to recall exactly what happened which only makes it more difficult to calm them.
Nightmares typically happen during the second half of the night when dreaming is most intense, and they can vary in length from anywhere between 5 minutes to half an hour.
What causes night terrors, and can they be prevented?
Night terrors can be caused by a few different things. They are most common in children between the ages of 3 and 8 with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking, so it can be hereditary.
They can also be triggered by anything that increases how much deep sleep your child has, such as tiredness or fever, or something that causes your child to wake from deep sleep, such as excitement, anxiety or a full bladder.
Unfortunately, there has been no, single proven way to prevent night terrors from occurring, but by identifying the potential cause of the issue you can start to find ways to help your child grow out of them faster.
Therapy can be helpful if the issue seems to be related to stress or anxiety and a relaxing bedtime routine can also help ease them into a more stable sleep.
But, more importantly than trying to prevent them, you need to be well-equipped to handle a night terror when it does happen.
What should you do when your child has a night terror?
Night terrors are far more traumatising for the parents/guardians who must witness them than they are for the child who will have no memory of what happened.
With that being said, the most important thing to do in that situation is to remain calm and remind yourself that this is not hurting your child.
Though they may seem to be awake, they are still asleep so you must not intervene or interact with them, unless their safety is in jeopardy, as you will risk waking them up which will cause them to become more agitated.
All you need to do is wait until they have calmed down and the night terror has passed, and then comfort them as they fall back into a deep sleep.
You should have a chat with them the next morning to see if there is anything on their mind which may be causing them to feel anxious, worried or excited; hence, triggering the night terrors. If there is a clear cause for them, then you may be able to find the best method of tackling the issue.
As your child's sleep has been interrupted, you will find that they are tired and irritable the following day, and if this is happening on quite a regular basis, then it's important to speak with a GP as the lack of sleep could have a severe effect on their health.
As advised by the NHS:
If the night terror episodes are frequent and occur at a specific time every night, you may find that waking your child breaks the cycle.
Wake your child 15 minutes before the anticipated time of the episode every night for 7 days.
This can disrupt their sleep pattern enough to stop the episodes without affecting sleep quality.
What can you do to prevent your child from having nightmares?
Unlike night terrors, coping with and preventing nightmares is slightly easier, especially once you get to the root of the cause.
Nightmares are most common for those aged 3 to 6, but they can even occur in adulthood, and are most often caused by a frightening experience, such as a book or movie, or a subconscious worry or fear.
When your child has a nightmare, it's important to comfort them as they can be very daunting and feel very real, so you need to reassure them that it was all just a dream. They may ask to sleep in your room that night, or for you to stay with them until they fall back to sleep, and you should oblige on this occasion.
You should also talk to them immediately after they have woken from the nightmare (they are likely to forget the dream by the following morning) to find out what the bad dream was about as this may help you understand what has caused it.
For example, if the dream contains a monster similar to one from a film they have watched, then you'll know that this was likely the cause of the nightmare, or if there is an underlying meaning behind the dream (following a quick Google search) you might learn that starting a new school is what's causing these sudden recurring nightmares.
All in all, night terrors and nightmares – though not a pleasant experience for either the child or the parent/guardian – are nothing to fear. For the most part, your child will grow out of them.
But, if you they are occurring frequently, and have been for a while, and you are concerned about the well-being of your child, then consult a medical professional as soon as possible.