Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children

Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children


Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children


Nightmares or night terrors are scary dreams. They are most common in kids 3 to 6 years of age and generally happen in the second half of the night. Children wake-up fearful and may have difficulty falling back asleep. Children who awaken with the nightmare are usually easily reassured and are able to go back to sleep easily. They seem to be most common when children have very active imaginations.


What can cause nightmares?

  • too little sleep
  • caffeine
  • too much stimulation, particularly from TV and video games


Do not try to wake your child up. This may actually worsen or lengthen the duration of the terror.


Nightmares Management

If your child is having in a nightmare please reassure him or her as quickly as possible. Find a way to soothe your child. Some children are easily soothed and reassured, and some require some “magic”. For these children you can “search the room” for anything scary to your child such as ‘monsters’. My personal trick involves filling a spray bottle with water, otherwise known as “monster spray” and having your child spray the room. Other children respond well to having a night light in the room.



Avoid exposure to frightening shows or experiences. Often children with frequent nightmares are developing anxiety from things they are seeing on TV, reading or experiencing at home. Avoiding screen time 1 to 2 hours before bedtime can mitigate some nightmares.


Night Terrors in Toddlers and Children

Night terrors in children occur when your child is partially woken during the transition from deep sleep to light sleep. They are most common in kids 2 to 4 years of age and usually occur within one to two hours of falling asleep. Some children have them in the early morning.


During the night terror, the child appears frightened, sweaty and pale. They often open the eyes wide and speak incoherently or scream though they are not responsive to you. Some episodes last half an hour or more. This is often very frightful for the parents. Usually children return to sleep very quickly after the episode and will not remember the event in the morning.


What causes night terrors in children? – stress, a full bladder, loud noises or fatigue can trigger night terrors. Often there is a family history of other sleep disorders and parents.


Night Terrors Management

Do not try to wake your child up. This may actually worsen or lengthen the duration of the terror. There is no point of discussing the night terror with your child the next day as they will not remember it. Sometimes altering the child sleep cycle can prevent further night terrors. If your child is having a night terror around the same time each night you can gently wake them 30 to 60 minutes before the terror is likely to happen each night for a week. Sometimes this will stop the cycle. Ensuring your child has enough sleep, no caffeine close to bedtime and minimizing screen time can also be helpful as with nightmares. Melatonin for children can also be helpful for some kids – ask your doctor for more information.


Here’s a great article on Creating the Ideal Room for Sleep

Dina M. Kulik, MD, FRCPC, PEM

About Dina M. Kulik, MD, FRCPC, PEM

Dina is a wife, mother of 4, and adrenaline junky. She loves to share children’s health information from her professional and personal experience. More About Dr Dina.

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