Night terrors

After a nightmare, the child may wake up and seek comfort from parents; usually, the child can relate what happened in the dream and why it was scary. Children may have trouble going back to sleep after a nightmare and may have the same dream again on other nights.

Nightmares decrease in frequency as children get older, and often stop completely in adolescence, although some—especially those who are imaginative and creative—may continue to have nightmares into adulthood.


Experts usually suggest that parents encourage young children to discuss their nightmares with their parents or other adults, but that children generally do not need treatment. However, if a child is suffering from recurrent or very disturbing nightmares, the help of a therapist may be needed to have the child draw the nightmare, talk with the frightening characters, or imagine how the nightmare could change to help the child feel safer and less frightened.

Nightmares that replay a traumatic event actually reflect a normal mental healing process and will occur less often and be less frightening if the child is recovering. Nightmares in children can occur up to six months after a stressful physical or emotional event. However, if nightmares continue and interfere with a child's sleep, they can affect the child's ability to function during the day. For this reason, parents may want to consult a doctor to see whether any treatment is appropriate to help the child. (See also night terrors.)

night terrors A relatively common sleep problem that occurs primarily in young children between the ages of three and five years. Two percent to 3 percent of all children will experience episodes of night terrors, but by the time they reach school age, most have outgrown these nighttime events. Although it may be frightening to watch, night terrors are not unusual nor dangerous to a child. As the brain matures and a child's sleep pattern matures, the terrors go away.

Night Terrors vs. Nightmares

A night terror is different from a nightmare, which occurs during the dream phase of sleep (REM

sleep). A nightmare frightens a child, who usually wakes up with a vivid memory of a long scary dream. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during a phase of deep non-REM sleep, usually an hour or two after the child goes to bed. During a night terror, which may last anywhere from a few minutes up to an hour, the child is still asleep, although her eyes may be open. When she does wake up, she will have absolutely no recollection of the episode other than a sense of fear.


Several factors may contribute to a child's night terrors. They often seem to run in families and may be triggered by fatigue and psychological stress.


It is important that a child prone to night terrors get plenty of rest and minimize stress whenever possible. Because children usually have night terrors at the same time each night (usually within the first few hours after falling asleep) parents can try waking a child about 30 minutes before the night terror usually happens. After about five minutes, the child can be allowed to fall back to sleep.

Because a child may get out of bed and run around, parents should gently restrain a child experiencing night terrors. Once a night terror has started, the child should not be shouted at or shaken awake, as these methods will just worsen the terror.

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