Nightmares vs. Night Terrors
It's estimated that up to 90% of children ages 3-6 will experience occasional nightmares. A much small percentage will experience night terrors. They may sound similar, so what's the difference and what can you do to help comfort your child?
Nightmares: Nightmares usually occur in the second half of the night. Your child will wake up and usually be able to recall their nightmare, something like monsters, the dark or even death. Your child will be scared and will seek your comfort.
How to help: The most important thing to do is to offer comfort to your child. Don't discount their fears. Show them and tell them they are safe. You can also offer a security item, like a blanket or stuffed animal. To prevent nightmares, try to limit your child's exposure to frightening movies, TV shows and stories. Even the news can be scary for some children. You can also find some bedtime stories that deal with getting over nighttime fears. Another recommendation, which we use in our house, is Good Dreams Spray. It's just a spray bottle with lavender water in it. Each night before we leave the room, my son sprays a bit around his bed to help him have good dreams. Then if there's ever a time in the middle of the night when he gets scared, we just do a few extra sprays.
Night Terrors: Night terrors are much less common than nightmares, but many children will experience them at some point. Night terrors are described as a partial waking from sleep with screaming, crying, kicking and possibly sleepwalking. These usually occur in the first half of the night. Your child will seem awake (their eyes are open) but they won't respond to your comfort. They will continue to scream and thrash, no matter what you do, for a few minutes or even up to 30-45 minutes. This is tough to watch, especially because your child is not calmed by anything you do. When the night terror is over, your child will fall back into a deep sleep and have no recollection of the night terror the next day.
How to help: Your first priority is to keep your child safe. If they are sleepwalking, try to direct them back to bed. If they are kicking and thrashing, make sure they can't hurt themselves. Don't try to wake your child up. This won't work and may cause your child more disturbance. Instead, try to return your child to sleep. You may be able to hold them or gently speak to them, but don't shout or shake them in an effort to "snap them out it." The night terror will eventually end on it's own and your child will return to a deep sleep. Night terrors commonly occur when a child is overtired or overstimulated. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and going to bed at an age appropriate time. Also try to limit screen use and sugary foods right before bed. These may cause over-stimulation, leading to night terrors.
If nightmares or night terrors are causing your family a lot of stress, talk to your pediatrician. In rare cases, a sleep disorder may be a factor.