While both nightmares and night terrors are scary, that is pretty much where their similarities end. Nightmares can happen to anyone at any age, whereas night terrors typically occur in children between 4 and 12 years of age – although children as young as 18 months have been known to have them. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, approximately one to six percent of young children experience night terrors.
Nightmares usually take place during the second half of the sleep cycle during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle. Often some type of action is involved such as being chased by a boogey man, or falling off of a high cliff. Immediately following the dream, the child (or adult) will come fully awake and be able to recall vivid details.
Night terrors typically occur at the beginning of the sleep cycle during the non-REM deep sleep phase, and can last 10-30 minutes. The child will be both awake and asleep – very similar to sleep walking – and will be unable to recall the incident or any of the details.
These episodes are very disturbing to parents and caregivers. Unlike nightmares where a parent can give hugs and offer reassurance, a child in the throes of a night terror will flail and scream uncontrollably without even knowing you are in the room desperately trying to console them. The best thing you can do for a child in the middle of a night terror is to make sure their surroundings are safe and they cannot injure themselves.
There are a number of reasons that children have nightmares or night terrors such as:
- Inconsistent bedtimes
- Separation anxiety
- Sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings
- Over stimulation
- Feeling stressed or anxious
- Medications or illness
While there is no over-the-counter treatment for nightmares or night terrors, there are steps that you can take to help minimize the episodes:
- Develop a consistent bedtime routine that includes going to bed at the same time each night.
- Often, a nice relaxing bath beforehand followed by reading a favorite story or book will help to promote sleepiness.
- Tuck them in with a favorite stuffed animal, doll, or blanket.
- If your child seems especially fearful, put a nightlight in the room and leave the bedroom door open.
- Make sure your child gets the proper amount of sleep. You may even want to add a nap during the day.
- If necessary, consult with your pediatrician or family physician to make sure there are no medical reasons preventing your child from getting a good night’s rest such as sleep apnea or reflux.
One of the biggest issues that affect sleep and cause nightmares/terrors is an anxiety disorder. If your child seems overly anxious, consult with a mental health provider for a comprehensive evaluation.