Night Terrors and Nightmares

What is a night terror?

In a night terror, your child has awoken only partially from sleep. When you go in to see the child, although the child’s eyes are open and the child may be saying words, the child is confused and does not really seem to be responding to your efforts to calm him/her. The next morning your child does not remember the episode. Night terrors tend to occur during the first few hours of the night where nightmares tend to occur more in the later part of the night.

What should I do if my child is having a night terror?

Once you have assessed that your child is having a night terror then you should do as little as possible. Make sure your child is safe but otherwise let your child alone. Since your child is not fully awake, your efforts to calm or soothe your child do little except keep your child from falling back into deep sleep. Efforts to intervene will only prolong the spell. Often, if you leave the child alone, you will find the spells get shorter and shorter over subsequent nights.
If your child has night terrors at a predictable time most nights, you can “reset” your child’s sleep cycle and prevent the night terror. To do this, go into your child’s room about 30-45 minutes before his/her usual time of partial wakening and gently rouse him/her for just a few minutes. Then let him/her go back to sleep. Often, if you do this for several weeks, the night terrors will go away for a prolonged period of time.

What is a nightmare?

When your child has had a night mare, he/she will be fully awake. He/She will appear upset but will respond to you and will generally be making sense.

What should I do if my child has a nightmare?

Calm your child, reassure him/her that they are safe and that if they get scared again you will come back to them. Give them their special stuffed animal, blanket, or nightlight to provide comfort and reassurance. The next day, your child will remember his/her dream and you can talk about it and provide reassurance. If your child is having frequent nightmares, limit viewing or reading even remotely frightening materials untill the child is older. If your child seems to have persistent problems with nightmares or has nightmares associated with daytime anxiety or worries, talk with your child’s doctor.


Author: Medical Home Team - 10/2009
Content Last Updated: 10/2009