It can be alarming when you wake in the middle of the night to a screaming child or even worse, when they are thrashing and kicking too. Your child is upset and difficult to console and you think, what is happening? Is this a nightmare or a night terror?


Nightmares are a bad dream that causes distress and are more common than night terrors. They involve very little body movement and tend to occur later in the night or early morning when in the rapid eye movement stage of sleep. Nightmares and their imagery can sometimes be remembered and once awake, the child gains alertness fairly quickly.   

Usually around 3 and 4 years of age is when nightmares can start to occur. This is an age when kids are exposed to new ideas and imagery through books, tv show, movies, older siblings, or friends at school. Those visuals can stay with them and show up at night in their dreams. 

Nightmares: How to Respond 

If your child wakes from a nightmare and is upset or scared, offering reassurance and a little comfort is the way to go. Still encourage them to fall back asleep on their own though (if they don’t fall asleep on their own in general, then the first step is sleep training them so they can). 

Offering too much comfort and reassurance can backfire and cause more wake ups and “nightmares” so find your happy medium. Be reassuring, but also set boundaries – they need to fall back asleep on their own. That way you can be certain the nightmares really are nightmares and not your child saying it’s a nightmare to get extra love and attention in the night. Save that extra lovin’ for the day!      

If the frequency of the nightmares has increased, then address it during the day. Have a conversation with your child about what’s going on so you can help them learn to calm and cope in the night. Model and practice some things they can do when they wake in the night from a bad dream. 

Some examples might be:

*Practicing deep breathing

*Using visualization techniques

*Snuggling a lovey

*Creating and practicing a mantra to say on repeat

That way when they have the next nightmare, you can say, why don’t you snuggle your lovey and say your mantra. It’s not new. They’ve already practiced.   

You may also have to pay attention to what your child is watching or seeing in books and limit some of the images that seem to be recurring in your child’s dreams. 

Night Terrors

Night terrors are not as common. They tend to happen earlier in the night when the child is transitioning out of deep non-rapid eye movement sleep. There can be screaming coupled with movement like thrashing and kicking. Oftentimes the child appears to be awake but is not responding to the parent or seems confused or out of it. When night terrors occur, children oftentimes do not remember them. It can be more frightening for the parent to see than the child to experience. 

Night Terrors: How to Respond

The best course of action is to stay with your child to make sure they are safe, especially if there is a lot of body movement happening. Most medical processionals advise against waking the child while experiencing a night terror. It is better to just let it run its course which can last from minutes to over an hour. 

Night terrors can be triggered by exhaustion, a fever, or medications, along with several other factors. The good thing is that most children outgrow night terrors by adolescents. 

How to Minimize the Number of Nightmares and Night Terrors

For both nightmares and night terrors, sleep deprivation and poor sleep hygiene can cause the frequency to increase.  Here are somethings you can do to help minimize both:

  • Implement a consistent bedtime routine. Do the same steps every night so it can become a cue for your child’s brain and body that sleep is coming. 
  • Get your child to bed on time. Most children benefit from a bedtime between 7 and 8. For your child, look at when they typically are falling asleep and move it earlier. 
  • If your child does not know how to fall asleep independently, teach them. Children who rely on someone or something to fall asleep are typically not getting as much sleep as they could if they were doing it themselves. 
  • Avoid eating right before sleep, especially large meals. There is still more needed to be studied on the correlation between food and nightmares, but most medical professionals will suggest avoiding big means right before bed.  
  • Talk to your medical professional if you are concerned about your child or if the nightmares or night terrors are affecting their day-to-day activities.

If you need help teaching your child how to sleep independently, schedule a FREE Discovery Call so we can chat.   

No responses yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For more sleep training resources subscribe to my newsletter today.

* indicates required