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How to Deal With Your Child’s Nightmares and Night Terrors

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

There are many factors that can cause your child to wake up in the middle of the night. Most of the times, night waking episodes are caused by tiredness and over-stimulation during the day – both of which may lead to nightmares and night terrors.

What are Nightmares?

Nightmares are scary dreams and it is common for children to get them from time to time. Most nightmares happen during the second half of the night (usually after 2am), when dreaming is most intense.

Your child may wake up crying and come to you for comfort, and might even have trouble going back to sleep.

What Parents Can Do:

  • Go to your child as quickly as possible

  • Assure him/her that you are there and will not let anything harm him/her

  • Encourage your child to tell you what happened, and remind him/her that dreams are not real

  • Allow him/her to keep a light on to help him/her feel and sleep better

  • Once he/she has calmed down, encourage him/her to go back to sleep

  • See if there is something that is scaring your child (e.g. shadows). If so, make sure to remove them.

What are Night Terrors?

Some toddlers and pre-schoolers experience a different type of scary dream, which is known as a “night terror”. Night terrors take place during the deepest stages of sleep (usually between 12am and 2am).

Night terrors can result from stress, illness, an erratic or insufficient sleep schedule or any type of sleep deprivation. In certain cases, night terrors can be caused by sleep apnoea, a serious disorder in which the airway passages are blocked by enlarged tonsils and adenoids (normal tissue in the throat) during sleep, making it difficult for your child to breathe properly.

A child having a night terror will often wake up screaming, sweating and breathing very fast. Your child’s pupils (the black centre of the eye) may look larger than normal. In some instances, your child may kick, scream and push you away, especially if you try to hold him/her down.

Unlike a nightmare, a child will not remember having a night terror. Kids usually fall right back to sleep after a night terror, as they actually had not been awake all the while.

What Parents Can Do:

  • Stay calm and do not try to wake your child

  • Make sure your child cannot hurt himself/herself. If he/she tries to get out of bed, gently try to hold him/her back.

  • Make sure your home is safe. Use toddler gates on staircases and don’t use bunk beds for children who experience nightmares and night terrors often. Window grills should be locked at all times.

Should I Be Worried about Nightmares or Night Terrors?

The frequency of nightmares and night terrors will decrease as your child get older. However, some people, especially those who have active imaginations, may keep having nightmares and night terrors even in adulthood.

If nightmares and night terrors keep happening and are disrupting your child’s sleep, they can affect his/her ability to function during the day. In situations like this, it is best to talk with your family doctor about suitable treatments that will help your child sleep better.

Tips to Help Your Child Sleep Better

A calm and stress-free bedtime routine can help to minimise the risk of nightmares and night terrors in your child. Here are some things you can do to help your child enjoy a good night’s sleep:

  • Follow a regular bedtime routine. Pleasant activities such as reading and listening to soft music may help your child relax.

  • Extreme tiredness may lead to night terrors. Make sure your child is well-rested and gets enough sleep every night.

  • If your child looks stressed or anxious, do talk about what is stressing him/her out. Work on a solution with him/her to manage stress.

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