Everyone is sound asleep and out of nowhere you hear your little one screaming. What is going on? Is he having a nightmare? Is it a night terror?
What do I do??
I haven’t experienced a night terror as a mom, but I have as a babysitter, and I had no clue what was going on; it honestly terrified me!
And I have yet to experience a nightmare as a mama, but I certainly have as a child and adult, and I’m sure our day will come with our girls.
Bottom line, they’re not fun. But let’s talk about them – I’m going to share:
- The difference between nightmares and night terrors
- How to prevent nightmares and night terrors
- How to help your child sleep after a nightmare
- How to support your child through a night terror
How are nightmares and night terrors different?
Nightmares are a bad dream, and they are a normal part of a child’s development. Children around the age of two and three (or older) may start experiencing nightmares, as this is when their imaginations start to run wild, yet they still have a difficult time distinguishing between what’s real and make believe.
You will know your child has had a nightmare (as opposed to a night terror) because he will seek comfort and will recognize you when you come into the room.
Your child will be able to recall the nightmare to some extent, which generally means it takes a while to fall back asleep because those scary thoughts are in his mind.
You will know your child is having a night terror because he likely won’t respond to you in the room. Your touch and voice won’t seem to make any changes to what’s happening.
His eyes will likely still be shut, and if he’s talking, it will likely be incoherent or just won’t make much sense to you.
Once he snaps out of it, he likely won’t be able to tell you what was happening, he may even go right back to sleep, and he probably won’t remember it the next day.
Additionally, night terrors generally happen in the first few hours of the night, possibly before parents even go to bed, and nightmares generally happen later in the night/early in the morning.
Know that night terrors can be genetic. So if someone in your family had night terrors growing up, there’s a good chance that’s why your child is experiencing them, as well.
You can read more information about nightmares and night terrors here.
How can we prevent nightmares and night terrors?
Although we can’t control if and when our child has a nightmare or night terror, there are some measures we can take to help prevent them:
- Make sure your child is not consistently overtired! Overtiredness and sleep debt are often connected to nightmares and night terrors. If your child is no longer napping, make sure he is still in bed between 6:30-8:00 pm, and consider having a regular quiet time during the day to help him rest and reset.
- Cut out any kind of screen time at least one hour before bed, though two hours is ideal.
- Avoid scary videos, books, and games, especially before bed, but during the day, too! It’s still entering your child’s imagination.
- Make sure your child is not too hot overnight. If they tend to run warmer, consider short sleeve jammies and run a fan in their room through the night.
- Avoid high doses of vitamins at bedtime.
- If your child is on any medications, check with the pediatrician to make sure the medications are not interfering with his nighttime sleep.
How should we respond to a nightmare?
Absolutely respond when you think your child has had a nightmare by going right to his room. If he runs to your room, walk your little one back to his room and try to comfort him from there.
Reassure your child that he is safe, maybe rub his back, sing your bedtime song, and remind him that hugging his lovey, or taking deep breaths, could help him calm.
On the independent sleep side, try not to linger too long and try to keep your child in his bed once you’re in his room. We want to make sure we are still promoting that independent sleep you’ve worked so hard to achieve!
If you leaving seems to be bringing up some anxiety, say something like, “I’m going to go get a drink of water. Stay in bed and I’ll come check on you when I’m done.” Or, “I have to go to the bathroom. Lay down quietly and I’ll be back to check on you when I’m done.”
These little check-ins could give your child the reassurance he needs to feel comfortable falling back asleep, even without you in there.
But what happens if your child has a nightmare and just can’t seem to fall back asleep on his own? Stay in there! An off night of assisting your little one to sleep is not going to throw sleep skills out the window, and if they’ve woken up afraid of something, comfort your little love!
How should we respond to a night terror?
Just like with a nightmare, absolutely respond when your child is having a night terror. This response, however, will look different, as your child will not be aware that you’re there.
First of all, do not try to wake up your child, as this could cause for more panic and confusion all around. You can try to rub his back, shush him, sing to him, but nothing will really help until the night terror is over.
If your child is getting up and trying to move around, do your best to keep him in bed/in his room to minimize the risk of getting hurt.
Once the night terror is over, help your child back in bed and tuck him in. He will likely drift right back to sleep and might not know you’re in there!
If, however, he does wake up, give him some reassurance, and like I outlined above with nightmares, the goal is to leave again for him to fall back asleep independently.
While nightmares and night terrors can be scary experiences for both adults and kids, there are steps we can take to try to avoid them, and we can also feel confident in knowing how to respond when they do happen.
Extra note: For some young kids, having a full bladder and night terrors are connected. So if that’s the case, make sure part of your child’s bedtime routine is going to the bathroom, try to limit liquids in the evening, and after the night terror is over, see if your little one will use the toilet.