Both nightmares and night terrors are common in every age from toddlers through to the elderly. But nightmares and night terrors are two very different things. It is important to understand what makes them different to help your toddler cope.
Let’s look at what causes night terrors in toddlers, as well as what’s the difference from nightmares.
What are night terrors, and how are they different from nightmares?
A nightmare is a bad dream. This usually feels very real, and it is unpleasant enough to wake a toddler from their sleep. Usually, they will remember what happened when they woke up. If they are talking, they may be able to describe it. Getting back to sleep after one can be hard work too.
Nightmares are very common. It is estimated that 1 in 4 kids between the age of 5-12 can have regular nightmares.
Nightmares take place during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is a lighter stage of sleep. They can happen at any time during the night, but they are more frequent during the early hours of the morning. That’s because we spend more time in REM sleep later on during the night.
Night terrors are very different. For starters, there’s no visual imagery involved like there is with dreams. The child can have their eyes wide open, scream and thrash around, and even sleepwalk.
But here’s the thing. Despite all the thrashing and movement, they are still asleep. Even if they speak or call for you, they don’t sense you.
Unlike in nightmares, we can’t remember anything when we wake up from a night terror. Also, night terrors happen during the non-REM sleep phase.
Because there is more non-REM sleep in the early part of the night, most night terrors happen from the time your child goes to sleep until midnight or soon after.
Night terrors are usually short. However, they can last as long as 45 minutes. These are common in older kids between 4 and 12, though they can start as young as 18 months. Children usually outgrow them by the time they reach school age.
How to spot the difference between nightmares and night terrors
There are a few ways to spot whether your toddler is having a nightmare or a night terror:
- Restless while dreaming but no panicking or screaming until they are awake = nightmare
- Able to tell you about the dream and what happened afterward = nightmare
- Scream and thrash while in the dream but doesn’t respond to your presence = night terror
- Doesn’t remember what happened when they wake up = night terror
What causes nightmares and night terrors in toddlers?
Night terrors can be triggered in kids who are stressed or overtired. Change – such as sleeping away from home – is another thing that can trigger either of these issues.
Another big issue can be an irregular sleep pattern. This might be due to events, inability to sleep, or maybe even that they have been unwell and not sleeping properly.
What to do if your toddler has night terrors
Both night terrors and nightmares are common issues, and many kids will grow out of them. While your child is in the stage where they are common, here are things you can do to help.
During the day
Make sure your child gets enough physical activity.
Physical activity during the day is also important. The WHO recommends 180 minutes or 3 hours of active time each day, spread throughout the day. With the pandemic, it has been trickier than ever for parents to get their toddlers outside and active.
However, making a point to have enough physical activity does help with sleep problems. Your child should also get enough outdoor time, and more sunlight during the day.
Avoid having only artificial lighting for most of the day. Getting more natural sunlight during the day helps to set your child’s internal clock.
Have a balance of wake time and nap time.
Have a balance between physical activity and having sufficient nap times, so your child isn’t overtired at night. Overtiredness can be a trigger for night terrors. Learn to recognize signs that your child may be getting tired.
Not all signs of tiredness are obvious, such as yawning or nodding off. Some toddlers can still seem very active even if they are already tired and fighting sleep. Crankiness or having a meltdown is a common sign of fatigue.
Stop electronics at least two hours before bedtime.
So many people like watching movies before bed. The truth is that falling asleep to movies and technology is counterproductive when it comes to ensuring a good night’s sleep. Turn off your electronics at least two hours before bed, and focus on low-tech, quiet activities at that point.
If your child is looking at computers, smartphones, and other electronic screens, they may be exposed to too much blue light. The blue light can mess up your child’s circadian rhythm.
This makes it harder for your child to get to sleep and increases the chances of having nightmares and night terrors. Even if you use a blue light filter, there is no evidence that these actually work.
Have a regular sleep routine.
Toddlers respond well to routines. Have soothing and calming routines before bed. This can include brushing teeth, a relaxing bath, and a quiet activity such as a bedtime story.
Optimize your child’s sleep environment.
Turn your child’s bedroom (or your shared bedroom) into a sleep sanctuary. When it’s all designed to help you relax and get more sleep, all of you will get more sleep. Make the bedroom an oasis for sleep and relaxation.
Avoid distracting stimuli such as too many toys. A few favorite stuffed animals or books are great for the bedroom, but nothing loud or flashy.
Create a quiet environment. If you do use white noise, make sure it is not too loud. I personally like to use soft and soothing lullabies. While lullabies have gotten a bad rap from some “sleep training” programs, research shows that babies do relax in response to lullabies.
During a night terror
Make sure your child is safe.
Make sure that your child is safe, and that your child will not be injured. Make sure they can’t hurt themselves, such as by hitting their head or falling from the bed.
If your child is also sleepwalking, gently guide or carry your back to bed. You should install gates or fences to make sure that your child doesn’t access stairs or other dangerous areas.
Don’t try to wake your child.
It is tempting to wake a child from a nightmare, but this isn’t the best course. Be ready to comfort them when they wake up or talk about what their dream was.
When to seek medical help for nightmares or night terrors
If you have tried these tips and your child’s sleep hasn’t improved, or if you are worried about the frequency or intensity, be sure to talk with your pediatrician.
- twitching or jerking of the arms or legs
- any stiffening of the body
- a change in skin color during the attack
- unusual posture of the body
- any staring spells during the daytime
As a parent, it can be frightening to see your toddler experience night terrors and nightmares. While they are normal, there are steps you can take to help reduce the chances of them happening.
Don’t forget to download my free guide to No Prep, Stress-Free Toddler Activities to help keep your toddler busy during the day and reduce the chances of nightmares or night terrors!
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