Night terrors and nightmares in childhood

Night terrors and nightmares in childhood

Many children experience nightmares and night terrors, very well know the parents who have had to get up at midnight to comfort them after hearing their cries of dread. That is why we are going to explain today what they consist of and the difference between a night terror and a nightmare.


  • 1 Difference between nightmares and night terrors
  • 2 The nightmares
  • 3 The night terrors

Difference between nightmares and night terrors

Nightmares occur during the REM sleep phase. When a child has a nightmare, he can wake up because of it and, depending on age, be able to remember and describe bad sleep.

A child with night terrorsInstead, it can scream and squirm, and it is very difficult to control and reassure. This behaviour occurs when you wake up abruptly from a state of deep sleep, such as Phases III and IV, but not during REM sleep. However, the child will not be fully awake during these episodes and will have no memory of what happened the next morning.

Below we will describe in more detail both nightmares and night terrors, along with some tips on what we can do.

The nigthmares

Nightmares are very common in children three to six years old or even older. They usually occur late at night and cause strong feelings of terror, fear, anguish or anxiety. The child can wake up and be able to remember and describe the dream he has had.

Nightmares in children can be caused by an unpleasant or anxious experience, such as watching a scary movie, or due to something that worries them.

What we can do

Talk with the child about what happened It will help us find out if there is something that could be worrisome and could be triggering your nightmares. In any case, look for a relaxing routine Before going to bed it can be very beneficial.

We should only take the child to see the doctor if he is having nightmares repeatedly, especially if these dreams contain some type of recurring theme. If nightmares are being caused by a really stressful experience, they may need advice.

The night terrors

Night terrors are quite common in children between three and eight years old. A child experiencing night terrors can scream and writhe in extreme panic, and may even jump out of bed. Your eyes will be open, but the little one will not be fully awake.

The night terrors they usually occur 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep, when it is moving from the deepest stage of sleep (phase III or IV) to the lightest of REM sleep, stage in which dreams occur. Usually, this transition is somewhat smooth. However, on rare occasions, the child is agitated scared, and this is a reaction of fear or night terror.

During a night terror, the child could suddenly sit on the bed and shout in distress. The child's breathing and heartbeat will accelerate, they can sweat, squirm and be extremely upset and scared. After a few minutes, or something else, the child goes back to sleep.

Unlike nightmares, which are often remembered, the children have no memory of one night of terror the next day, because they were in deep sleep when it happened and there are no mental images to remember.

The episodes usually occur in the first part of the night, continue for several minutes (up to 15 minutes) and sometimes occur more than once during the night.

Why they happen

Night terrors are more common in children with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking.

A night terror attack can be triggered by:

  • An increase in the amount of deep sleep due to tiredness, fever or certain types of medications
  • Other causes are excitement, anxiety, a sudden noise or a full bladder

What we can do

The best we can do if our son is having an episode of night terror, first is keep calm and wait until you calm down. Do not intervene or interact with him, unless he can fall or get injured.

Night terrors can scare those who see them, but they don't harm the child. We should not try to wake you when you are having an episode. They do not realize what is happening and they may become more agitated if we try to comfort them.

After the episode is over, it will be safer to wake up the little one. If necessary, we can encourage you to use the bathroom before going back to sleep.

We should not be scared if after falling quickly into a deep sleep, he has another episode again. Let's make sure you're fully awake before you go back to sleep, so you can break this cycle.

The child will not remember the episode the next morning, as we have said, but it can still help to have a talk with him to find out if there is something that especially worries him and can trigger the episodes. It is also good, as in the case of nightmares, to maintain a relax routine before bedtime. Let's try not to talk in a worried way about the episodes with him, as he could increase his anxiety unnecessarily.

If episodes of night terror are frequent and always occur at a specific time of night, we can wake up the child about 15 minutes before the time that episode appears for seven days, to help break the cycle. This can disrupt your sleep pattern enough to stop the episodes without affecting the quality of sleep.

When should we seek help?

The majority of children when they grow up, night terrors disappear. However, we can go to a specialist if they appear several times at night or happen most nights.