Nightmares & Night Terrors

Are you a parent who is experiencing nightmares and or night terrors with a toddler? Not only can they make you feel helpless, but it can be a little heartbreaking too. If your little one is experiencing these night issues, know that you are definitely not alone! Unfortunately, they are very common and I’m finding that more and more babies/ toddlers are experiencing night terrors.

What’s the difference between nightmares vs night terrors? Nightmares are unpleasant and frightening dreams that cause emotional distress. Unlike night terrors, nightmares usually occur during REM (deep) sleep and they don’t include physical or vocal behaviours. Often, details or feelings of a nightmare will be remembered in the morning, and they can even become recurring.

Night terrors on the other hand are classified as an arousal disorder. They occur during non-REM sleep and usually happen during the first 3 to 4 hours of the night. What are the signs of a night terror? Your child will begin to suddenly panic, which can be accompanied by screaming, struggling movements or kicking. At the same time, a rapid heartbeat, fast breathing, flushing of the skin, sweating, dilating pupils and tensing of muscles can occur.

Although nightmares and night terrors are both intense and scary, night terrors can seem more extreme. Ironically, during a night terror children are typically not responsive if you try to wake them up or comfort them – even if their eyes are open! They may accidentally injure themselves or a family member if you do this, as they can try to fight or escape. Most night terrors last about 10 mins, but some children are known to experience them for up to 40 minutes. Rest assured  that after an episode, kids normally fall back asleep deeply and have no memory of it in the morning.

Both nightmares and night terrors begin in childhood and according to the Sleep Foundation in the US, it is estimated 10% to 50% of children aged 3 to 5 years have nightmares strong enough to disturb their parents. Night terrors conversely are less prevalent (up to 6.5% of children reported) and are not as well documented. One study did find up to 40% of children under age 5 experienced them, however, more research needs to be done.

Most children will outgrow these episodes and rates drop severely in adolescence and adulthood. If episodes are occurring 2 or more times per week, your child is hurting themselves or night terrors are accompanied by sleepwalking or talking, it’s best to seek professional advice.