Nightmare and night terror in children, what to do in each case?

Imagine the following situation: Your 4-year-old son starts screaming at night, sweating and struggling. What would you do? It is common for parents to be worried, believing that something very bad is happening to their children and, in an attempt to calm the child, they wake up and take the little one to sleep with them. In these cases, there is no right or wrong. It is up to the parents to decide what to do, according to their habits and the way they care for their children. However, it is worth understanding what may be happening to the child, so that the decision to take him or her to bed, to wake him or not in the middle of the night, is made consciously.

In this situation, the child probably experienced a nightmare or nighttime child terror . Do you know the difference between them? Although the manifestations are similar, these are two very different scenarios, which aim at different approaches. Understand more about each one with the tips we have prepared. If you prefer, watch the video content at the end of the article!

What is the nightmare?

According to Leonardo Martins, PhD in Social Psychology at USP, the nightmare happens in the “REM” phase of sleep, which is when the eyes move, occurring in cycles that are repeated on average 4 to 5 times a night. It is at this stage that we dream and have nightmares.

Nightmares are more common than we imagine: A survey conducted in 2006 and in 2014 by the University of Montreal, revealed that up to 80% of the dream’s content is somehow anxiogenic, that is, it promotes bad sensations, known as nightmares. However, we adults can clearly distinguish what is reality and illusion, and we end up not shaking or waking up due to such a dream. But children, especially between 3 and 4 years old, have difficulties separating reality and fantasy, and when they dream of something bad, they wake up and can be confused, in doubt if that monster is real or not, having difficulties to relax and return to to sleep.

In the nightmare the child remembers what happened, and can describe in detail to the parents what scared him.

In the event of a nightmare, what can parents do?

  • Comfort and calm the child
  • Explain that what happened was just in her head
  • Leave an object with the child that he likes (teddy bear, blanket)
  • Talk about what may be worrying her
  • Develop a relaxing routine, a ritual for sleep time, so that they learn how to relax and go back to sleep more easily

The Children’s Night Terror

Unlike the nightmare, children’s night terror occurs in the “Non-REM” phase. As scientific theories suggest, it is probably due to the immaturity of the child’s central nervous system. Although parents may be frightened, it is natural and happens to some children. This maturation process happens little by little, according to the growth, making the episodes increasingly rare, until they become extinct in adolescence.

During nighttime terror, which lasts an average of about 15 minutes, the child may show signs of intense panic, talk, scream, cry, struggle, keep an eye open or sit on the bed. And even though she is very agitated, she usually remains asleep, does not notice the presence of her parents and then does not even remember what happened.

Episodes of night terror are relatively common in children, and research suggests that there is no harm in their lives, that is, it will not hinder their development. Parents need to be aware if the episodes are very frequent, such as every night, but if it happens once or twice a week, it is more likely to be just one phase.

Interestingly, research indicates that parents who speak in sleep or are sleepwalking are more likely to have children with night terror.