Nightmares and Night Terrors


As a parent, it is a horrible feeling to wake up in the middle of the night to your child screaming and crying from a bad dream.

Our first instinct might be to hollar “it’s just a bad dream, go back to sleep.” Although it isn’t real, the best thing we can do as parents is to immediately respond to our scared child.

Why nightmares?
Young children, especially toddlers have a great imagination. For them, it is really hard to separate make believe from reality. So, any number of things that happen during the day can cause the bad dreams and nightmares.
Change can also trigger bad dreams, as well as struggles, arguments, and problems at home amongst parents and siblings. Nightmares usually happen in the wee hours of the morning.

Dealing with nightmares?
*Don’t down play the fact that your children are scared. You don’t want to minimize their fears. Acknowledge that they are afraid. This will help them not only settle down, but develop trust.

*Explaining to your child that it is just a dream probably won’t do much to help at this age. It will probably make more sense to explain to your child that “they were just watching a movie in their head”, or they were “just pretending or playing make believe in their sleep.” Because they like to pretend and play make believe during the day, this will be much easier for them to understand.

*Once you sense your child is calm enough, you can ask them what the dream was about, but only if you feel you need to. Have them keep the explanation brief so you don’t make the situation worse. You also don’t want your kids to get in a habit of waking up and conversing in the night. It will only take a time or two and they might start using it as a tactic to chat and stay up.

*Talk about a happy memory or thought. This will help get your child’s mind on something else.

*Be cautious about inviting them into your bed to sleep, or lay down with you. This too will very quickly turn into a nightly ritual that will hard to break. It is best to console them in their own bed and leave them there.

**Most important, hold your child, rub their back, and reassure them that everything is okay.

Can we prevent nightmares?
*There are the obvious things to steer clear of. Scary books, movies, and stories before bed.

*Using a nightlight can also be helpful so the room isn’t pitch black.

*Keep your children’s lives clear of scary and uncertain things in general. Television puts thoughts and visions in children’s heads that can come back to haunt them as they sleep. Be sure they are watching things that are innocent and age appropriate.

**Most important, establish a bedtime routine. Keep it calm and un-rushed. This will make things predictable. There is great comfort for children in predictability. It makes them feel safe when they know what is going to happen. It will also give them time to wind down and let their minds settle and relax.

What are Night Terrors?
Night terrors might look and sound like a nightmare or bad dream, but much worse. Screams, sweating, wide open eyes. The other differences, your child is sound asleep and usually doesn’t remember anything about it the next morning. They usually happen during the first few hours of sleep.

Night terrors can be caused by bad sleep patterns, stress, anxiety or changes in routines. Kids who don’t get enough sleep are much more likely to have terrors than those kids who get sufficient sleep.

How to Handle Night Terrors?
There isn’t a lot that parents can do. The most important is to stay with your child until the terror is over. They usually don’t last more than a minute or two, but can last as long as 30 minutes. Don’t try to hold them or wake them up. They don’t realize what is happening and this will make them even more disoriented. Kids usually settle right back into sleep on their own.

Can Night Terrors be Prevented?
Just like with nightmares, a calm, relaxed, and routine bed schedule is very important. On top of that, try to seek out what might be bothering them. Examine their home, school, church and friend situation. See if you can find an underlying stress or struggle. Address these stresses during their waking hours to resolve their concerns. Terrors usually only last a few weeks, but if they continue, start recording when they happen and how often. You can take this to your pediatrician and see if he/she can provide some help.

Do your kids ever have bad dreams or night terrors? What do you do?


  1. 1
    shantel davis says:

    After reading this Im pretty sure my son has had night terrors for quite some time. I thought that either he realized he was alone in his room or he wanted to get up and play.He has always had a bad sleeping pattern and after reading this I am alot more enlightened that this IS real. Alot of other moms where telling me he was too young to be having nightmares but this article obviously says otherwise, Thanks for this now maybe we can get to the bottom of his bad sleeping habits and night terrors

Speak Your Mind