Nightmares/night terrors factsheet

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are bad dreams that generally occur towards morning. They are most common in children between three and five years of age and they often occur because of upsetting events during the day, or for no obvious reason. Over one third of children at pre-school have a nightmare at least once every two weeks.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are far less common than nightmares and they usually happen in the first few hours after falling asleep, during deep, non-dreaming sleep. Night terrors may occur after a child has had a high fever or after a busy or stressful day. They mostly occur in the older toddler and pre-school years. It may look as if the child is reacting to a terrifying nightmare, but they are not dreaming or suffering any distress. Night terrors are usually over quickly but can last up to 20 minutes and it is often difficult to wake children when they are having them. Night terrors may involve:-

* Loud, panic-stricken screaming

* Out of control thrashing of arms and legs

* Rapid heartbeat

* Rapid breathing

* Sweating

* A glassy stare

How can I help my child to feel safe at bedtime?

If your child is afraid of going to sleep because they have been frightened by a nightmare, they may develop sleeping problems. Help them to feel comfortable and safe in their bedroom. If possible, have a night light in the bedroom or leave a hallway light on. Your child may like to have some music playing softly, special bedclothes or favourite pictures on the wall.

How can I develop a bedtime routine?

To help children feel secure, develop a good bedtime routine, for example put toys away, clean teeth, go to the toilet, read a story, kiss and say goodnight. Before bed, try to calm your child with quiet, relaxing activities rather than exciting them with loud, active play. Avoid scary stories and television shows just before bed.

How can I manage my child’s nightmares?

If your child is awake and frightened, tell them they are safe. Be supportive – you may like to hold your child close to you to comfort them. Reassure your child that nothing bad will happen and explain that things that happen in nightmares cannot hurt them. If you leave a light on, your child can quickly work out where they are when they wake from a nightmare. This can make it easier for them to accept that a dream is over and they are safe in their bed.

How can I manage my child’s night terrors?

While your child is having night terrors, they are in a deep sleep, so do not try to wake them up as this will only frighten them. Children will generally settle without waking after night terrors, so the best approach is to let them pass, even though this can be upsetting for you to watch. Stay close and offer comfort only if your child asks for help. If you feel you must hold your child to keep them safe, be gentle and let them go if they try to break free.