Nightmares and Night Terrors
What are night terrors?
A night terror is a partial waking from sleep with behaviors such as screaming, kicking, panic, sleep walking, thrashing, or mumbling. They are harmless and each episode will end in deep sleep.
The following are common characteristics of a night terror:
Your child is frightened but cannot be awakened or comforted.
Your child's eyes are wide open but he or she does not know that you are there.
The episode lasts from 10 to 30 minutes.
Your child often does not remember the episode in the morning.
How to help a child during a night terrors
Try to help your child return to normal sleep. Do not try to awaken your child. Make soothing comments. Hold your child if it seems to help him or her feel better. Shaking or shouting at your child may cause the child to become more upset.
Protect your child against injury. During a night terror, a child can fall down a stairway, run into a wall, or break a window. Try to gently direct your child back to bed.
Prepare babysitters for these episodes. Explain to people who care for your child what a night terror is and what to do if one happens.
Try to prevent night terrors. A night terror can be triggered if your child becomes overly-tired. Be sure your child goes to bed at a regular time, and early enough to give him or her enough sleep. Younger children may need to return to a daily nap.
When to call your child's physician
While night terrors are not harmful, they can resemble other conditions or lead to problems for the child. Consult your child's physician if you notice any of the following:
The child has drooling, jerking, or stiffening
Terrors are interrupting sleep on a regular basis
Terrors last longer than 30 minutes
Your child does something dangerous during an episode
Other symptoms occur with the night terrors
Your child has daytime fears
You feel family stress may be a factor
You have other questions or concerns about your child's night terrors
What are nightmares?
Nightmares are scary dreams that awaken children and make them afraid to go back to sleep. Nightmares may happen for no known reason, but sometimes occur when your child has seen or heard things that upset him or her. These can be things that actually happen or are make-believe. Nightmares often relate to developmental stages of a child: toddlers may dream about separation from their parents; preschoolers may dream about monsters or the dark; school-aged children may dream about death or real dangers.
How to help a child with nightmares
Comfort, reassure, and cuddle your child.
Help your child talk about the bad dreams during the day.
Protect your child from seeing or hearing frightening movies and television shows.
Leave the bedroom door open (never close the door on a fearful child).
Provide a "security blanket" or toy for comfort.
Let your child go back to sleep in his or her own bed.
Do not spend a lot of time searching for "the monster."
During the bedtime routine, before your child goes to sleep, talk about happy or fun things.
Read some stories to your child about getting over nighttime fears.
When to call your child's physician
Consult your child's physician if you notice any of the following:
The nightmares become worse or happen more often
The fear interferes with daytime activities
You have other concerns or questions about your child's nightmares
Online Medical Reviewer: Finke, Amy, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically-affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 04/29/2014
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