Walking through a large store last weekend with my daughter, she asked to go through the Halloween section. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised but also excited that she’s starting to enjoy one of my favorite holidays! We turned down the aisle and she ran right past the candy, the girly costumes, the silly masks… then stopped cold in her tracks in the face of a creepy looking clown thing that you hang up on your front porch to greet trick or treaters. The look on her face said it all… Yikes!
Her eyes opened wide and she quickly ran straight back to me, yelling “MOMMY!” Besides giving her a big hug and redirecting her attention to the cute Disney princess dresses, my next thought went to wondering if she’d have a nightmare later that night. And that I wouldn’t be letting her go in that section of the store again…
Did she have a nightmare that night?
No. But the next night she did about something completely unrelated. She came into our room about 2:00am and said she’d had a bad dream.
What happened next?
When I talk with moms about their children’s sleep issues, I often hear the terms nightmares and night terrors to describe the same incident. Their child wakes in the middle of the night, a little scared and a bit of crying, but nonetheless upsetting for the child. The parents do comfort the child and everyone goes back to sleep. Since the two terms are often confused, I wanted to clear things up a bit.
Night terrors and nightmares are two different things.
Night terrors, although rare, tend to happen when we’re in really deep sleep vs nightmares happening during active, or Rapid Eye Movement (REM), sleep. During night terrors, children will tend to scream out and the event can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Night terrors tend to happen earlier in the night around midnight and may include sleepwalking.
Night terrors can be scary to watch but if you try to talk to your child, their reply might be just babbling or incoherent talk because they aren’t really awake. If you find that your child is having a night terror, stay calm and keep them safe, such as keeping them from falling out of bed. Most likely, your child won’t remember the event after they wake up.
If you are seeing a pattern of night terrors, it’s best to mention it to your pediatrician or family doctor to be on the safe side.
Nightmares (aka. bad dreams), on the other hand, are completely different and happen when we’re in REM sleep, which is where we normally dream. Like all dreams, some are happier than others. Nightmares tend to happen later in sleep cycle, usually in the early morning hours.
Children can sometimes recall some or most of details of the dream. If your child has had a nightmare, it’s best to be supportive and reassure them that dreams are normal. It’s simply their brains processing information. Try to help them think of something more positive as they go back to sleep. Make them feel safe; tuck them back in and go back to bed yourself.
Parents often want to ‘help’ more and decide to bring their child to their bed or sleep in the child’s bed. One night is ok, but if you find that your child keeps coming in to your room night after night wanting to sleep in bed with you, you might have a pattern on your hands. Before long you may find your child figures out they’ll get to sleep with you if they have a nightmare every night, so don’t let that habit start.
One way to help prevent nightmares is to make sure your child isn’t overtired and has a regular sleep schedule. Ensure your child is getting enough sleep at night and if they’re still napping, getting a solid nap during the day. If you’re noticing more nightmares happening at night, an earlier bedtime might be in order so your child gets more sleep.
So did my daughter have a nightmare? Yes. She said something about the scary gummy bears, most likely referring to the trailer for the new Goosebumps movie. I tucked her back in, gave her a kiss and she went right back to sleep in her bed. I too went back to sleep. Guess I’ll be watching the commercials a bit closer during her TV time for a few weeks.
How do you get your child back to sleep after a nightmare? Tell me in the comments below!
If you have other sleep related questions, let's chat!