Children don’t sleep well and wake up at night for various reasons. Some children will have difficulty falling asleep or will delay going to bed because of bedtime fears and worries. Nightmares and night terrors are common problems in children. If you’re wondering how to help your child with nightmares, today’s article is for you! We’re going to discuss the difference between nightmares and night terrors, the age these problems typically start, common triggers, and finally, strategies to help your child with nightmares.
One important note: if your child’s anxiety (at bedtime or during the day) is interfering with his or her age and developmentally appropriate activities, I recommend you speak with a pediatrician or a mental health professional.
Nightmares are scary dreams that wake your child up and may make them afraid to return to sleep. During a night terror your child may suddenly wake up terrified, cry uncontrollably, sweat, shake, look confused, and may not recognize you. Characteristically your child will have no recollection of what happened the next morning. During a night terror, your child may appear fully awake, but they are actually partially awake and still in NREM sleep. Night terrors typically occur during the first half of the night; whereas, nightmares are more likely to occur in the last third of the night.
Up to 75% of children will have occasional nightmares. Children as young as 6 months may start having nightmares. They typically begin around age 3 and may last up until age 12. Little ones have huge imaginations which can lead to nightmares. Night terrors typically happen ages 2-5 and will resolve on their own with time.
No one knows exactly what causes nightmares, but there’s some common triggers that we know of. The most common trigger is your child seeing or hearing something that upsets him or her. This can be something that has actually happened or can be make believe. Children have very creative imaginations, and as part of typical development, have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality. Nightmares are often related to the different developmental stages of children. For example, in younger children the development of their imagination can lead to fears about monsters. In school-age children, fears and anxiety around school, peers, and current events (natural disasters, shootings) are often a trigger for nightmares.
As with all sleep struggles, the most important first step is to have a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine. A consistent and predictable bedtime routine helps your child feel safe and sets the foundation for avoiding bedtime battles.
Certainly nightmares are tricky to manage for parents and children alike. If you’re struggling, I invite you to reach out to me as I’d love to help you and your family.
HealthyChildren.Org: Nightmares, Night Terrors & Sleepwalking in Children
John Hopkins Medicine: Nightmares and Night Terrors
Pediatric Sleep Problems: A Clinician’s Guide to Behavioral Interventions