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2019 Sep

Nightmares & Night Terrors

What’s the diff? More importantly, what’s a parent to do?

You are sleeping peacefully when you are awakened by your toddler screaming. You race into her room ready to face an intruder. She’s alone and looks awake. She’s crying and shaking. She seems terrified and confused. You reach for her, but she pushes you away. She doesn’t seem to recognize you. Don’t worry. Your child hasn’t been abducted by aliens. This is a night terror. What’s the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?

Nightmares are bad dreams that happen during the second half of the night when dreaming occurs. If a child has a nightmare, he may wake up crying or even shaking. He may run to your bed for reassurance or call out for you. He may tell you about the dream. Hug him and reassure him that he is safe. Tell him that bad dreams are not real.

Then take him by the hand and walk back to his bed. Sit with him for a few moments, being sure to check under the bed and in the closet to reassure him. Turn on a night light or leave the door open. Sometimes a toy (i.e., “brave bear”) is helpful to “protect” him. I used dream catchers on my child’s bed to catch the bad dreams and let the good dreams through. Return to your bed, leaving wishes for only good dreams.

Night terrors occur in toddlers and preschoolers. They differ from a nightmare, in that the child likely won’t remember them. Night terrors can be scary for parents. They can last up to 45 minutes, but most are shorter. The child may look awake but isn’t. Your child may cry, shake, sweat, or breathe fast. She may scream, kick, or stare. She won’t seem to see you or recognize you. If you try to hold her, she will push you away. Night terrors occur during the deepest stage of sleep and may occur in cycles night after night. The child usually falls right back asleep afterwards because she never really woke up.

What can parents do during a night terror? Take a deep breath. Try to stay calm. The night terror is frightening for you, but your child likely won’t remember it. Don’t try to wake your child. Be sure that your child is in a safe place where he/she can’t hurt himself/herself. If your child gets out of bed, gently return him/her to the bed. Remember that your child is dreaming and that he/she will return to a quiet sleep soon.

To break the cycle of the recurrent night terror, note the time it began. The next night gently rouse the child 15-30 minutes prior to this time by giving a hug and kiss to pull the child out of the deepest sleep cycle. That often will break the night terror cycle and prevent that night’s episode.

Most often nightmares and night terrors are worsened when the child is overly tired or stressed. Practicing good sleep hygiene, such as maintaining a consistent bedtime that allows for 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night is essential. Keep a consistent bedtime. Have a bedtime routine: bath, brush teeth, read a book, sing a song, or say prayers, and a quick goodnight kiss.

Don’t fall into the trap of lying down with your child, as it only prolongs the process. Put the child in bed 30 minutes before she needs to fall asleep to allow time to settle in. Have a strict rule about no electronic screens in the bedroom. Avoid electronics 60 minutes prior to bedtime.

Children need proper sleep to grow and be healthy. Lack of sleep can lead to fussiness, trouble concentrating, headaches, depression, and obesity. Note the sleep time recommendation for your child’s age (hours include nap times):

  • Infants less than a year need 12-16 hours of sleep.
  • Toddlers from 1 to 2 years need 11-14 hours of sleep.
  • Preschoolers from 3 to 5 years need 10 to 13 hours of sleep.
  • Children from 6-12 years old need 9 to 12 hours of sleep.
  • Teens from 13 to 18 years need 8 to 10 hours of sleep.

Keep your child on a regular sleep schedule. Make sleep a priority in your home. Practice a good sleep routine. Nightmares and night terrors may occur, but you and brave bear will be prepared.

Dr. Melanie J. Wilhelm is a Doctor of Nursing Practice and a Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner in Norfolk, as well as an Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University. Her book, Raising Today’s Baby: Second Edition, is available on Amazon. Read more at Follow her at and

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