If your child has started screaming in the night and seems terrified it can be even more unsettling for you than it is for them. How do you know if it is a nightmare or a night terror and what can you do about it?
A nightmare happens during REM sleep. This is usually later in the night, or early in the morning. It often wakes the child up and if they are old enough they can tell you what it was that they were scared of. Nightmares commonly start around 2.5 years old as this is the time that children’s imagination is developing.
A night terror happens during non REM sleep. This is the first block of deeper sleep at the beginning of the night. Often a night terror will happen within the first couple of hours after going to sleep. It isn’t a dream, and the child isn’t aware of what is happening. The child is still asleep and won’t remember it once they wake up. Night terrors can be very disturbing for parents as the child can be screaming and inconsolable. Since they are still asleep they can be looking right at you but not see you. Their eyes will be glazed and they won’t interact with you. Any attempts you make to calm them will make no difference, as they don’t even realise that you are there. It isn’t a good idea to wake a child who is having a night terror as waking up suddenly can cause more harm than good. Just ride it out and once it is over the child will go back into a calm sleep. The next morning they won’t remember anything and won’t even know that you were in the room.
How can you prevent these from happening?
It is hard to prevent nightmares from happening because this is just a normal part of dreaming. You can try to ensure that children don’t see or hear things that aren’t age appropriate, and you can try to minimise fears by talking through them during the day. Try not to mention fears or concerns right before bed as this will have the opposite effect to what you were trying to achieve. When responding to nightmares respond sensitively but matter of factly. Acknowledge that they feel scared, but reassure them that it was only a dream and that they are safe.
Preventing night terrors can be easier depending on the trigger for them. Over time you will be able to pinpoint the sorts of circumstances that set the night terrors off. These can be things like being overtired, hot, anxious or excited. Some children get them during times of stress, while others get them leading up to exciting periods for example a birthday or Christmas. The easiest way of preventing night terrors is to ensure that your child is well rested. After a late night, or early morning ensure that bedtime is earlier for the next couple of days until they catch up. If your child is consistently having night terrors each night at around the same time. You can partially wake them about 10 minutes before that time so that they go back to sleep into a new sleep cycle.
When responding to your child’s distress, try to comfort them…If it makes no difference it is probably a night terror. Ensure that they are safe and not likely to hurt themselves, and wait it out to make sure they settle down again as the night terror passes. Night terrors aren’t dangerous, but can disrupt everyone else’s sleep.