Child nightmares and night terrors

Child nightmares and night terrors

Let’s talk about nightmares and night terrors

Most kids experience child nightmares or night terrors that they will eventually grow out of. In this article, we’ll dive into both of these occurrences and the differences between the two.

Nightmares, or scary dreams, wake children up and leave them fearful and upset.
Nightmares can cause sleep disturbances and difficulty being alone.

Some Key Facts:

  • Nightmares usually occur in the latter half of the night.
  • Nightmares are most common in kids 3 to 6 years of age.
  • Roughly half of the kids in this age range report frequent nightmares.
  • Most kids will outgrow their scary dreams eventually.
  • With nightmares, children may have difficulty falling back asleep.
  • Nightmares more commonly occur in very imaginative children.
  • Most children can be comforted rather quickly, allowing them to go back to sleep.

Causes of nightmares

We do not know the exact cause of nightmares in children, but below are some common causes of nightmares:

  • Your child is experiencing stress or if they are overtired.
  • Children who have gone through a traumatic situation or have ongoing stress or anxiety may experience frequent nightmares.
  • Some medications increase the risk of nightmares.
  • Kids who have an inconsistent sleep routine or are not getting enough sleep are at increased risk of having nightmares.
  • Nightmares may be associated with fevers, illness, or developmental delay.

Note: There is no gender-specific difference in who has nightmares.


Some psychological and genetic factors can also cause nightmares in kids. Approximately 7% of kids with nightmares have a family history of experiencing scary dreams.


Ways to manage nightmares effectively

  • Reassure your child that everything is ok and safe.
  • Comfort your child with a kiss or hug or cuddle, but be brief.
  • Using a night light in the room can provide comfort. Try for a red nightlight, as blue light can lead to poor sleep by decreasing melatonin production, the ‘sleepy hormone.’


Pro trick for dealing with nightmares

If your child is scared of having nightmares, then you can use my favorite trick – monster spray! Create ‘monster spray’ by filling water in a spray bottle and adding a drop or two of your child’s favorite essential oil. When your child is scared, let your child spray the room. This is just one creative way to comfort them and help them feel safe.


How to prevent nightmares

  • Avoid your child being exposed to scary or anxiety-provoking shows and experiences, particularly before bedtime.
  • Turn screens off more than 2 hours before their bedtime.
  • Develop a consistent and predictable bedtime routine for your kids.


Night terrors in toddlers

Night terrors in toddlers and children are different than nightmares. Night terrors typically occur when your child is half woken during the transition from deep to light sleep.


Night terror facts:

  • Night terrors are common in kids between 2 to 4 years of age.
  • Night terrors more often occur during the first or second hour of sleep.
  • Some children will experience night terrors early in the morning, just before waking up.
  • Some night terrors last many minutes, or even hours.
  • Most often, kids return to sleep once the night terror episode is over. Usually, children do not even remember the episode when asked in the morning.
  • Night terrors are often paired with sleepwalking.

Your child will often look scared, pale, or sweaty. They may open their eyes, cry or scream. Most children experiencing night terror are not responsive to their parents during the episode.


Causes of night terrors

Kids are more likely to experience night terrors if they have:

  • Poor sleep or a delayed bedtime
  • A full bladder
  • Recent stress or anxiety during the day.

In some cases, there is a family history of sleep disorders in parents or siblings.


Best ways to deal with night terrors in toddlers

  • Do not wake your child up during a night terror episode. Waking up your child can lengthen the episode and cause more stress.
  • Avoid discussing the night terrors the next day because they may not remember having had the night terrors, and discussing it can lead to more anxiety and fear.
  • Altering your child’s sleep cycle by trying a slightly earlier or later bedtime can help prevent further night terrors.


Pro Tips for managing night terrors

If your child is experiencing night terrors at the same time daily, consider waking him or her up 30 to 60 minutes before the time when the terror usually occurs. Try this waking for a week and track any change. This often stops the pattern of night terrors. Additionally, ensure your child gets enough sleep at night and minimize screen time and caffeine/sugar before bed.


Final thoughts:

Night terrors and nightmares in toddlers are common and usually controllable. Young children are most likely to have night terrors, and they typically decrease in prevalence with age.

Often, nightmares and night terrors can be prevented by ensuring your child gets enough sleep. Minimize screen time before bedtime. If your child experiences nightmares, it is best to comfort them and quickly return to sleep. If your child experiences night terrors, waking him or her before they typically have the episode can help break the cycle.


Dr. Dina Kulik, Parent Playbook

Author, Dr. Dina Kulik

Author, Dr. Dina Kulik

Choose any topic:


SUCCESS! You'll be hearing from us soon!

COVID Toolbox


Success! Check Your Inbox

Parent Playbook - Travel Medicine Kit


Success! Check Your Inbox