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Handling your child's nightmares and night terrors

In movies and books, ghoulies and ghosties can frighten us grown-ups. But we know it's not real. For kids, on the other hand, things that go bump in the night can be the stuff of nightmares or night terrors.

These two sleep problems may wake your child from sleep and leave them crying out for you. The good news? Nightmares and night terrors usually go away with time. It's likely all you'll need is some patience and reassuring words to help your kiddo get past them.

Nightmares and how to handle them

Nightmares are bad dreams. They tend to occur deep in the night, often just before dawn. Kids might remember them later. All kids have nightmares from time to time. They can be caused by everyday occurrences or stressful physical or emotional events.

When your child wakes up crying from a nightmare, go to them right away. Tell them you're there to protect them.

Let your little one tell you about the dream. Explain that dreams aren't real and cannot hurt them. (Do a monster check of the room if you need to!) It's also OK to let them leave the light on for a while if it will help them go back to sleep.

Understanding night terrors

Unlike nightmares, night terrors tend to happen earlier at night. During a night terror, kids might:

  • Scream, kick and thrash in the bed.
  • Sweat and gasp.
  • Shake and cry a lot.
  • Have a blank stare.
  • Ignore your questions because they might not know you're there.

Since children are usually asleep during a night terror, they don't know what's happening. For this reason, night terrors can be more frightening for parents than for kids.

Luckily, most night terrors end quickly. But some can last 45 minutes. Afterward, children fall back to sleep and won't remember what happened.

Helping your child during a night terror

Don't try to wake them up. Be calm and stay with your child until the night terror ends. You also shouldn't try to restrain them, unless you think they might get out of bed and accidentally hurt themselves.

Until your sleeper's night terrors are a thing of the past, be sure any babysitters know what to do if one occurs while you're gone.

Preventing scary situations

Keeping a regular sleep schedule for your little one can help reduce nightmares and night terrors. So can powering down TVs and other screens at least a couple of hours before bedtime.

When to call the doctor

Nightmares and night terrors aren't caused by mental or physical illnesses. But you might talk with your child's doctor if they occur a lot. The reason? Frequent sleep disruptions can make it hard for your child to be at their best the next day.

Sources: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; American Academy of Family Physicians; American Academy of Pediatrics

Reviewed 5/3/2022

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