Boo! All you need to know about nightmares and night terrors

Updated: Dec 9, 2020




Let's get in the Halloween spirit!


Some of us LOVE this tradition, but at the same time, hate it. I love candy, dressing my daughter up, and looking at all the decorations, but I hate spooky things! Some costumes are way too scary (not just for my daughter, but also for me hahaha), and some decorations are also scary. There are houses we need to avoid because I know my daughter might get scared.


Recently we went to a Halloween event at Nashville Zoo (where we live) and my daughter got scared by some costumes. I know that when she watches something scary during the day (especially too close to bedtime), she might have nightmares. So, there are some cartoons we avoid during the day.


All these Halloween activities got me thinking about nightmares and night terrors and I want to share some useful information with you.


As Richard Ferber describes in his book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, at age 2, your toddler´s dreams become more symbolic, and monsters or anything he is dreaming about will be representing his impulses and fears. Also, around this age, they start being more aware of their surroundings and things that might happen, but they are still young enough and not capable of distinguishing a dream from reality at night.


I get a lot of questions regarding night terrors and nightmares, sometimes we think it is a nightmare but it is not, it's a night terror and there is a different approach on how to help our kids when having one. In order to help our kids, the first thing we need to understand is the difference between night terrors and nightmares. Here are a few facts on both so you can better understand and help your child.


Night Terror

  • It is not a bad dream

  • Happens during a partial arousal, when your child is coming out of a deep sleep, but still is NOT AWAKE.

  • Happens during the first part of the night (1 to 3 hrs after falling asleep)

  • The child doesn't remember in the morning. Don't mention it the next day.

  • Your child might stand up, talk, scream, sit, etc. His eyes might be wide open but he is asleep.

  • After the night terror, they calmly go back to sleep

  • Do not touch him, just stay near so you can make sure he is physically safe.

  • Can stop if your child gets more sleep, check his sleep needs, and make sure he has an appropriate sleep schedule for his age.


Nightmare

  • Happens during “light sleep”, the second part of the night (4 hrs after falling asleep)

  • Your child can remember the bad dream and describe it.

  • Your child seems really frightened and it might take her a while to go back to sleep.

  • It might take a while to get the scary thoughts out of his head.

  • You can't prevent all nightmares, they are simply part of being a kid.

  • Avoid scary movies, cartoons, books or games. Be aware of what you are watching or listening to on TV (sometimes even having the news on the back can affect our children's thoughts).

  • Respond quickly and reassure your child that they are safe. Stay with him until he is OK to go back to sleep; it might take awhile for the scary thoughts to go away.

  • If she is having trouble keeping the thoughts out of her mind Kim West suggests in her book Good Night, Sleep Tight to create visualizations, which I have found very useful with my own 3 year old daughter. Help her imagine and pretend that she is her favorite character in her favorite book, or just have her picture a beautiful scenario, something you know she loves.


For both, nightmares and night terrors, having healthy sleep habits and an age appropriate schedule helps, so be aware of your child's sleep needs (daytime and nighttime sleep, wakeful windows, etc).


I hope you find this information useful! Share any other strategies that have worked for you and Happy Halloween!