Have you ever had your toddler or preschooler just wake up in the middle of the night screaming?
I sure have.
With my 3 year old, it can be 45 minutes or 6 hours after he first fell asleep, and I’ve always found that so strange!
I figured that it was always just a nightmare, but he acts differently depending on when he wakes up.
So is it just a nightmare? Or is it a night terror?
Does it matter?
Did you know that it does matter which one it is to determine how you should help?
So what is the difference?
Night terrors typically take place when a child is most deeply asleep, and this occurs early in the night. You may even find that your child wakes up screaming before you even go to bed yourself!
Night terrors are defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “extreme nightmares that take place during non-REM sleep.”¹
To recognize a night terror, look for these signs:
- they happen early in the night
- your child screams and acts terrified
- your child does not appear to be awake
- they often include “arousal, agitation, large pupils, sweating, and increased blood pressure.”¹
- appear to not recognize you
- sleepwalking may occur
- after a few minutes, your child relaxes and goes right back to sleep
- the following morning, your child will have vague, if any, recollection of the dream
What should you do?
The immediate response of most parents (like me!) is to try and wake your child up. We think, “if they are awake, then I can calm them and they won’t be scared anymore!”
That is actually the OPPOSITE thing you should do.
What you should do is stay calm, don’t try to wake your child, and just ensure that your child can’t hurt himself, since night terrors can often come with extreme thrashing.²
Nightmares are something that are a bit more familiar to us. Nightmares are the typical “bad dream” that your child may have.
These often occur more toward the middle and later parts of the night (or should I say early since they can happen during the early morning hours). They take place during REM sleep, since this is the time that vivid dreams occur.
Signs of nightmares:
- your child wakes up and is very scared
- they can usually remember the dream
- your child has a challenging time falling back to sleep
And you may find that your child’s nightmares look very different from your own! My son, just the other day, started talking in sleep because of a nightmare:
“No mom, I need a DIFFERENT show! No, please, I need chocolate ice cream!”
My husband and I almost died laughing at this, but we had to keep in mind, that it actually was something that was scaring him. Kids sure have weird minds.
What should you do?
This is the time where you can follow your instincts. Since your child will wake up from a nightmare, you can try to comfort her and get her to fall back asleep. If necessary, talk through the bad dream to help your child calm down, and remind them that dreams aren’t real.²
A nightlight can help with the fears, but it can also be a hit or miss for some children. Some nights my son loves his since it (obviously) makes the room less dark. Other times he hates it because it creates lots of shadows in his room.
Play it by ear to see what will help your little one.
Is there any way you can prevent nightmares and night terrors?
Yes and no. These sleep disturbances can be caused by stress or over-tiredness. So try to limit any stress or anxiety, and be sure to create a good sleep routine.
If you need any help with that, check out my free ebook specifically on baby and toddler sleep!
I have found that essential oils can help as well. I often diffuse doTERRA’s Serenity and Juniper Berry for my son, which has made a HUGE difference for him.
Worried that your child’s sleep is abnormal? Try creating a sleep diary and talking to your doctor about it. And be sure to check out my post called Is My Baby’s Sleep Normal? as well!
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