Night Terrors vs Nightmares in Babies

Nightmares and night terrors are common in children ages 1 through 12 years old. For most parents, awakening to the sounds of a child screaming is an alarming feeling, especially when attempts to comfort your child are unsuccessful as they are unresponsive or inconsolable. This isn’t a nightmare; these are behaviors of a child during a night terror. Nightmares are disruptive or frightening dreams that cause sleep distress. Unlike night terrors, nightmares usually occur during REM sleep or deep sleep and don’t involve physical or vocal disruptions. It can be common for your child to remember the details or feelings of the nightmare the next day. It’s important to understand that night terrors vs nightmares in babies are different and should be addressed differently. Here are my tips on how to handle them! 

Night Terrors vs Nightmares In Babies

What Are Night Terrors In Babies

What Causes Night Terrors? 

Night terrors, also called sleep terrors, occur during non-REM (NREM) sleep. When sleep cycles move from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep.  Night terrors occur during the first 3 to 4 hours of the night. A child during a night terror will suddenly begin to show signs of panic and terror while sleeping such as screaming, flailing, or kicking. 

Although your child may open their eyes and appear to be extremely scared, they are usually not able to respond to anyone trying to comfort or wake them. Most night terrors last about 10 minutes, but they can continue for 30 to 40 minutes in some children. After the night terror, children typically fall back into a deep sleep and often have no memory of the night terror the next morning.

The frequency of night terrors can be hard to predict. Some children may experience them very rarely while others may have them regularly and even at the same time every night.

Signs of a Night Terror 

During a night terror, a child might:

  • Suddenly sit straight up in bed
  • Shout or scream in distress or fear
  • Have increased breathing and a faster heartbeat
  • Start sweating
  • Flail or thrash around
  • Act upset and scared

Unlike nightmares, which children usually remember, the next day your child won’t have any memory of a night terror. This is because they were in deep sleep when it happened and there is no memory for them to recall what happened. 

Who Can Get Night Terrors?

Night terrors are common in children who are:

  • Overtired
  • Sick 
  • Taking a new medicine
  • Sleeping in a new environment or away from home
  • Not getting enough sleep

Night terrors only occur in 3%–6% of children, while most children will experience a nightmare. Night terrors usually happen in children ages 4 and 12 years old, but have occurred in babies as young as 18 months. 

How To Handle Night Terrors In Babies

How Can I Help My Child?

Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents. It is hard to feel like you can’t help or comfort your child. The best way to help your child through a night terror is to wait for it to pass. Make  sure to watch your child so that they don’t get hurt if they are thrashing or moving around. You want to avoid waking your child as that can be extremely disruptive to their night terror. Children will usually calm down and go back to sleep on their own

There are no proven treatments for night terrors, but here are a few ways to help prevent night terrors:

  • Avoid letting your child stay up too late and get overtired
  • Create a bedtime routine that’s calming and relaxing
  • Be sure sure your child gets enough sleep during the day and night
  • Keep body and room temperature between 68-72 fahrenheit 

If your child continues to experience night terrors,  be sure to seek medical advice and speak to a sleep specialist who specializes in sleep disorders for this purpose only.

What Causes Nightmares In Babies

Children, usually over age 2, can start to express their dreams. Nightmares typically start to occur in toddler and preschool aged children when fears start to develop. Nightmares aren’t always preventable, but there are things parents can do to help prepare your child’s mind and body for a restful night’s sleep. 

When Do Nightmares Happen?

Nightmares occur during the stage of sleep when your brain is very active. The life-like images the brain is processing can feel real which trigger emotions. Nightmares tend to occur in the second half the night when REM cycles are longer.  

When children wake up after having a nightmare, the images they say are still fresh in their minds which can cause them to be afraid and upset for a while even when they are awake. 

What Causes Nightmares?

Nightmares are one of the ways that children process their feelings about various situations they experience. Nightmares can be an expression of their ability to work through worries and concerns.

Nightmares can happen when a child is worried or stressed about an upcoming change such as a new baby coming, moving, going to a new school, etc. 

Nightmares can happen after a child experiences some type of trauma such as an accident, seeing a family member who is sick or in pain, an injury, etc.  

Fome some children, watching scary shows, movies or books can cause nightmares.

How To Handle Baby Nightmares

Parents can’t prevent nightmares from happening but you can help prepare your child’s mind and body for a good night’s sleep! 

Some ways to achieve this: 

  • Have your child on a consistent schedule with a consistent bedtime and wake up time. This helps to develop healthy sleep habits.
  • Have a bedtime routine that encourages them to wind down by providing them love and attention. This could look like: a healthy dinner, a bath, books, cuddles, bed.
  • Ensure your child’s sleep space is conducive for restorative sleep, their room should be peaceful, cool (Between 68-72 degrees fahrenheit), and dark. If they request a night light, use one with a red or orange bulb. 
  • Turn off TV and all screens at least an hour before bedtime. 
  • Consider adding a book on fears into your child’s bedtime routine. Some of my favorites are: Tiny T. Rex and the Very Dark Dark, Franklin in the Dark, When I Feel Scared
After a night occurs, reassure your children that you’re there for them. Your love and presence will help them calm down and feel safe. Tell your child that what they experienced was a nightmare and it’s over. You can reiterate that what happens in their dreams will not happen in real life. 

The good news is that nightmares are usually not a regular occurrence for most children! Seek medical advice if nightmares are occurring frequently, your child is exhibiting breathing problems, or you are concerned they have a sleep disorder.

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