Many children experience nightmares and night terrors, but most grow out of them. They don't cause any long-term harm to your child.
Night terrors are very different from nightmares.
A child having night terrors may scream and thrash around, and may not recognise you if you try to comfort them. This behaviour occurs just as they come out of a cycle of deep sleep. Your child will not be fully awake during these episodes and will have no memory of their behaviour the next morning.
Nightmares, on the other hand, occur during the lighter stage of sleep, when the child is dreaming. They may wake up from the nightmare and, depending on their age, may be able to remember and describe the bad dream to you.
Both night terrors and nightmares in children are described in more detail below, with advice on what you should do.
Night terrors are common in children aged three to eight years old. A child who experiences night terrors may scream, shout and thrash around in extreme panic, and may even jump out of bed. Their eyes are open, but they are not fully awake.
The episodes usually occur in the early part of the night and can continue for several minutes, for up to 15 minutes.
Why they happen
Night terrors are more common in children with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking behaviour.
A night terror attack may be triggered by:
- anything that increases your child's amount of deep sleep, such as tiredness, fever or certain drugs
- anything that makes your child more likely to wake from deep sleep, such as excitement, anxiety or sudden noise
What you should do
The best thing you can do if your child is having an episode of night terrors is to stay calm and wait until the episode passes, making sure your child is safe.
Night terrors can be frightening to witness, but they don't cause any harm to your child. You shouldn't attempt to wake them when they are having the episode.
Your child may not recognise you and may become more agitated if you try to comfort them.
Once your child has come out of the attack, it is safe to wake them and, if necessary, encourage them to use the toilet before settling them back to sleep.
If your child returns very quickly into deep sleep, they may have another episode. Making sure they are fully awake before they go back to sleep can break this cycle.
Your child will not remember the episode the next morning, but it may still help to have a general chat to find out if anything is worrying them and triggering their attacks. It also helps if they have a relaxing bedtime routine.
If the night terror attacks 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 attack every night for seven days. This can disrupt their sleep pattern enough to stop the attacks without affecting sleep quality.
When you should seek help
Most children grow out of night terrors. However, you should talk to your doctor if they are occurring several times a night or are very frequent (occurring most nights). Your doctor will be able to check whether something is causing them that could be easily treated. For example, large tonsils could be causing breathing problems at night and waking your child.
Nightmares are common in children aged three to six years, and most children grow out of them.
They usually occur later in the night, and your child may wake up and be able to remember and describe the dream.
Nightmares in children can be caused by a frightening experience, such as watching a scary film, or something that is worrying them.
What you should do
You may want to talk to your child to see if anything is worrying them and triggering their nightmares. It also helps to ensure they have a relaxing bedtime routine.
If your child is older and having frequent nightmares, you may need advice from a psychologist (see your doctor for a referral).