“Mommy, I think there is a monster in my room!” “Mommy, I heard something in my closet!” “Mommy, what is that weird shape on the wall?”
As children get older, their imagination develops and with it, the increased likelihood that they will find something in their room to be scared of. The best thing to do when this happens at bedtime is to reassure them that you are there and that they are ok. Show them there is nothing to be afraid of and let them know you will come to check on them before you go to bed.
But what happens when those bedtime fears come to life in the middle of the night? Many toddlers and preschoolers experience nightmares and/or night terrors. These two things are very different and knowing the difference will help you handle these middle-of-the-night episodes with confidence (when all you want is to go back to sleep yourself!).
What is the difference between nightmares and night terrors?
Nightmares are more common than night terrors. A nightmare is typically a scary dream that happens when you child is asleep but causes them to wake up. Happening later in the night during REM sleep, nightmares tend to be actual fears surfacing at night. They can also be triggered by a real-life stressful situation. Nightmares will cause your child to call for you (possibly crying) in the middle of the night as this dream can seem VERY real to them!
Night terrors, also called as sleep terrors, are known as a parasomnia and fall under the same category as sleepwalking. Night terrors tend to be more common in boys and may start to show up between the ages of 4 - 8 years old. They typically occur one to three hours after your child goes to bed.
Night terrors present themselves much differently than nightmares, in that your child will show intense fear, inconsolable crying, and may seem panicked. If you enter your child’s room while this is going on, they likely won’t be aware of your presence. You will have extreme difficulty, or even be unable to wake them up and when they do wake, they will not remember what just happened. While the episodes don’t last long, they can be terrifying for parents! Night terrors can be brought on by fragmented sleep or stress.
What can parents do?
When a nightmare happens, go to your little one and reassure them. Give them a hug and a kiss, but don’t linger too long. If nightmares become something that happened more often than not, the best thing you can do is figure out the underlying issue that is causing stress and anxiety in your child during the day. Another suggestion is to make sure they aren’t getting too much screen time. And, if your family is going through any type of loss or divorce, try to keep everything in your little one’s life as consistent as possible.
How to handle night terrors is a bit different. Since they are brought on by fragmented sleep the first thing to do is make sure your child is getting enough sleep. You may need to consider an earlier bedtime if this is a concern. Also recommended is keeping a log of what happens throughout the day to see if you can identify a stressful trigger(s). Finally, having a consistent bedtime routine is important to help children know what is coming next. Remember, we want the routine to be in a place that is safe and comforting for them.
When a night terror happens, you should not interfere. Let the night terror play itself out. Trying to wake your child when they are in such a deep period of sleep can cause more agitation and confusion. It also poses the risk of throwing off the next sleep cycle. While it is terrifying to watch as a parent, trying to wake them will not work and in some cases will only prolong the episode. Night terrors are not damaging to your child’s health and by age 12 they will usually resolve on their own. Do make sure any dangerous objects are removed from your child’s room in the event they get out of bed during the terror. And if they do get out of bed, gently guide them back.
Practicing good sleep hygiene, such as getting the right amount of sleep and making sure your child is avoiding caffeine (sodas and chocolate) is the best way to keep night terrors at bay, Make sure you have the proper room environment set-up – dark and cool, and always keep a consistent bedtime routine.
And remember, you should always consult with your pediatrician if you have concerns!