Nightmares vs Night Terrors: a parent's guide

Night terrors can be scary but are rarely something of concern.
Night terrors can be scary but are rarely something of concern.

Your toddler has finally started sleeping without waking up for night feeds and nappy changes, so getting at least 7 hours of sleep should be possible by now, right? Not so fast. 

If you've not yet been woken by the sound of your toddler's screaming and crying from having a bad dream, brace yourself! 

According to certified sleep consultant and of owner of Good Night, Jolandi Becker, bad dreams usually begin during the toddler years because very young imaginations tend to run wild. 

But nightmares aren't the only type of bad dream young children experience, and Jolandi says it's important for parents to know the difference. 

Also see: Why your toddler needs your help to fall asleep

How to handle nightmares

These scary dreams can be triggered by anything from movies and videos, to books or even stories, and they tend to increase during times of change or trauma. 

They usually don't occur very often but increased frequency should not be ignored. It is advisable to seek assistance from a play therapist if they do become more frequent.

Jolandi says nightmares are easy to identify because your toddler will want to be comforted and will fall back asleep after a short time. 

Must read: 5 reasons your baby may be struggling to sleep

Night terrors on the other hand are quite a different experience

Most commonly, night terrors (also called sleep terrors) occur when the child is between four and eight years old, but there have been cases reported where children as young as 18 months also experience night terrors.

These happen more frequently at night and occur more regularly over a specified time.

Parents can be quite alarmed by a night terror as their child can appear quite anxious and could scream for between 5 and 15 minutes, and the presence of the parent will not comfort the child, or even worse, it could frighten them. 

These night terrors are more upsetting though for parents than for the child as children cannot remember them.

Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen during non-REM sleep and are not bad dreams. They can be caused by fevers, medication and most commonly, sleep deprivation (lack of sleep).

Here Jolandi provides tips on how to handle night terrors: 

  • First, ensure that your child is in fact safe when having a night terror. Just be there and wait it out, there is no need to try to calm your child. Trying to contain them could prolong the night terror.
  • Do not speak or ask them about it the next day. This can make them afraid and worry as they are not aware it is happening.
  • Implement a set bedtime routine that is not too long (around 30 minutes) and not too late. Children up to the age of five years need between 11 and 12 hours of sleep at night, thus bedtime should be around 7pm. A child older than 5 years can enjoy bedtime at around 7.30pm.
  • Avoid screen time for at least two hours before bedtime. Falling asleep in front of the TV should never happen.

Night terrors can be scary but are rarely something of concern. Implementing better sleep routines and ensuring your child gets enough rest, which is a solid 11 to 12 hours of sleep, goes a long way to improve their sleep quality and lessen the occurrence of night terrors.

Compiled for Parent24 by certified sleep consultant and of owner of Good Night, Jolandi Becker. 

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