While many of us have experienced nightmares, night terrors are a very different occurrence that are actually classed as a type of sleep disorder by the NHS. If your little one has been suffering from night terrors, here’s everything you need to know including the best ways to help both yourself and your child cope.
What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors?
Most people have experienced at least one nightmare in their lives; they tend to happen late at night during dream sleep and often cause the sleeper to wake up feeling scared, anxious, or distressed. Nightmares are very common amongst children aged three to six and can be caused by anything from scary films to frightening real life experiences.
Night terrors on the other hand, occur when something causes a child to wake suddenly from deep sleep rather than REM sleep. Like sleepwalking, children are often not fully awake but may scream, shout, or move around.
What causes night terrors?
Anything that causes your child to wake from deep sleep could lead to night terrors; over excitement before bed, anxiety, or needing the toilet can all lead to sudden awakening. Similarly, anything that causes your child to experiences an extended period of deep sleep during their night’s sleep pattern can make night terrors more likely; this can include anything from unusual tiredness, medication, or illness.
What should I do?
Unlike nightmares, where it can be helpful to wake a frightened child to comfort and reassure them, waking a child experiencing a night terror can often lead to more distress and confusion as your little one often won’t be fully awake or capable of recognising you. As difficult as it can be to stand by and watch, try to wait until your child has calmed down before you approach them or wake them – as long as they’re in no danger of hurting themselves, that is.
At this stage, it can be a good idea to wake your child fully. If they drift back into a deep sleep straightaway, there’s a chance further night terrors will occur. Check to see whether they need the toilet or not too, as this could be a contributing factor.
Children are unlikely to remember their night terrors the next day so don’t bring them up if you feel this might make your child anxious about sleeping, as this could make the night terrors worse. Instead, gently try to find out if there’s anything worrying them or bothering them that could be causing anxiety.
Most children grow out of night terrors by the age of around 12 so try not to worry too much as they won’t have any long-lasting psychological effect on your child. If, however, night terrors are occurring nightly or don’t go away by themselves, it’s also a good idea to visit your GP to make sure there’s no underlying medical cause.