night terrors and nightmares in children, what are the differences?
These terms are often used interchangeably, thinking that they are the same thing: they are not, and these are two very distinct phenomena. What’s the difference between a nightmare and a night terror? How do you recognize them? How can we prevent them? And what do you do when an episode occurs?
It is estimated that children begin to have their first nightmares at around 18 months / 2 years old when they are become able to tell you about them. Nightmares may start earlier in a child’s life, but it is difficult to differentiate between a nightmare and an awakening between cycles where a child, awake, simply needs to be reassured by the presence of his parents. The child cannot explain whether it was a nightmare as they do not know how.
Nightmares happen during the REM sleep phase. The child is dreaming, but it is a dream that is not pleasant, and it can wake them up.
Why does a child have nightmares?
A nightmare can have many origins: if the child has seen images or something disturbing, if they experiences significant changes in their life such as changing child care, starting school, the birth of a little brother or sister, but also simply if there was too much excitement in the evening before bedtime or if they are in a period of great learning.
How can nightmares be prevented?
It’s hard to prevent nightmares. My advice is to always try to prepare your child to understand situations of big changes or stress. By explaining what is happening and talking about how it makes them feel, it will help them integrate the change and they will be less prone to nightmares. It is important to protect our children from violence and to gradually make the transition to reality. For example, I would advise against watching the 8pm news with your child, but rather to find a way to explain things to them if you want to make them aware of the news. Be careful, however, not to lock them in a totally sanitized world because the discovery of the world outside when they get old enough, will be more brutal and the nightmares more intense.
How do I know if its a nightmare?
A nightmare often occurs in the second part of the night. It is in fact in the second part of the night that the proportion of REM sleep is the most important, whereas at the beginning of the night it is the deep sleep that is most important. The child suddenly wakes up, crying, or screaming, and calls their parents to be comforted. The child will often remember their nightmare the next morning.
What to do when a nightmare occurs?
First, comfort them, hug them, and reassure them. My advice is not to minimize their fear. I invite you to be empathetic with your child “I understand that you are very frightened by this wolf that you saw in your dream”, without minimizing saying “it’s nothing” or “it’s okay” but helping them to accept that fear. I am more in favor of telling a child the truth, making them verbalize what they saw, reassure them that it was a dream and that there is no wolf in the room, and explain to them that nightmares happen during great learning. By teaching them to face their fears, you will develop their self-confidence.
A night terror may at first seem like a nightmare, but it is usually much more intense. Night terrors always take place in the first part of the night, before midnight and most often 2 to 3 hours after falling asleep.Night terrors do not occur during the REM sleep phase, but at the end of the deep sleep cycle, during the transition to REM sleep. As if the child was “stuck” between two phases of sleep.
During these intense episodes, the child may do a little sleepwalking. For example, they can sit in bed and/or get up… Some children may also have their eyes open, which can be very disturbing for their parents.
What you need to know is that the child sleeps during night terror, and they will have no memory of it in the morning when they wake up. Parents often want to reassure their child, such as during a nightmare episode, and by doing so they take the risk of waking up their child, which makes their crisis more. The child wonders why their parents woke them up.
How can you tell the difference between a night terror and a nightmare?
If it happens at the beginning of the night, it is intense and the child is not looking for comfort from their parents, there is a good chance that it is a night terror and not a nightmare.
My advice: When a night terror episode occurs, stay with your child to make sure he or she is not going to get hurt, but don’t intervene. Let them make the transition to the next phase of sleep. Don’t worry, they won’t remember it in the morning when they wake up.
Why do night terrors start and how can they be prevented?
Why do night terrors start and how can they be prevented?
They are often a reflection of a lot of fatigue or stress during the day. To prevent them, try to promote a regular sleep rhythm and put your child to bed earlier. Provide a calm environment, away from the screens in your bedtime ritual, this will help you prepare for a calm and soothed sleep. If your child’s days are stressful, you can help by talking about it with them before bedtime.
Night terrors that happen episodically are not a concern, but if your child has them regularly, it is important to talk to your doctor.
Article written by Juliette Moudoulaud, children’s sleep specialist
This article was first published by Laudavie on the 20th September 2019 and has been translated and adapted for our English speaking audience.
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