Waking to the sound of your child screaming or calling your name in the middle of the night can be alarming. And, unfortunately, it’s a relatively common occurrence among parents with kids under the age of 12. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, about 75 percent of adults remember experiencing at least one nightmare as a child.
When a child wakes from sleeping in fear, there may be one of two things going on. If your child is able to describe their scary dream and explain why they are feeling afraid, it’s likely they had a nightmare. However, if your child appears to be confused or afraid and is continuing to scream while you comfort them, it’s possible they may be experiencing a night terror.
Responding to a nightmare versus a night terror looks slightly different, so understanding what your child is experiencing can best help you calm them and get them back to sleep.
A nightmare is a scary dream that often occurs during the second half of the night when your child experiencing lighter REM sleep. When your child has a nightmare, they’re typically able to remember the nightmare and describe it to you.
Currently, there is no medical consensus as to why nightmares occur. Some theories in sleep medicine and neuroscience suggest dreams can be the result of processing emotion or consolidating memory, which could explain why dreams often contain content children have been exposed to or experienced. However, there is no definitive evidence about why children have nightmares.
What to do when your child has a nightmare
Night terrors are a type of arousal disorder (parasomnia) that are caused by an over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. During sleep, the body moves from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep that occurs earlier in the night (within the first 3-4 hours of sleep) to lighter REM sleep. This transition is normally a smooth one, but sometimes the transition can overload the central nervous system, which can result in a night terror.
Night terrors are most common in toddlers and young children, but only about 3-6 percent of children experience them, making them a relatively rare occurrence. As a child’s nervous system grows, night terrors often disappear on their own.
During a night terror, a child may appear awake and very frightened, but they are actually still asleep. The child may cry, scream, look confused or scared, sweat, and tense their muscles — thrashing, shaking or kicking. Night terrors can last as long as 45 minutes, but they’re often much shorter than this. Though it can be upsetting for you, your child will not likely even remember that the night terror occurred.
There is some evidence that suggests night terrors may be linked to a family history of parasomnia conditions. If a parent or sibling experienced night terrors, it could be more likely a child would experience them, too. Night terrors may also be more likely to occur if a child is experiencing other sleep disorders — like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or gastroesophageal reflux.
There are also other factors that can trigger night terrors, including fever, sleep deprivation, disruption to the sleep schedule, periods of emotional distress or conflict, stress and certain medications.
What to do when your child has a night terror
Disruptions to sleep can be stressful for you and your child. While it may not be possible to prevent nightmares and night terrors completely, there are some things you can try to minimize them:
Some night waking is normal (especially in young kids), but if you’re noticing a significant frequency in nightmares or night terrors, it may time to consult your pediatrician. You may also want to seek help if:
Your pediatrician knows your child’s health history as well as anyone and they’re here to help. If you have any questions, about sleep or any other topic, please don’t hesitate to reach out.