Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children

Baby Sleep

Causes of Nightmares and Night Terrors

Many kids experience night terrors, but most of them grow out of them. Even though nightmares don’t cause any long-term psychological problems to kids, both night terrors and nightmares are different in general.

What are nightmares in children?

Nightmares, also known as scary dreams, wake children up and leave them with fearful and upset.

Nightmares can cause sleep disturbances and difficulty wanting to be alone.

Some Key Facts:

  • More commonly, a nightmare occurs in the second half of the night.
  • As per studies, nightmares are most prevalent in kids between 3 to 6 years.
  • Roughly half of the kids of this age period report frequent nightmares.
  • Most of the kids outgrow their scary dreams eventually.
  • With nightmares, children may have difficulty falling asleep back.
  • Nightmares are more common for children who have very active imaginations.

 Most children can be reassured rather quickly, enabling them to go back to sleep.

Causes of nightmares

The exact causes of nightmares in children are unknown. But the more likely reason is any of the following:

  • Your kid is experiencing some stress or is overtired.
  • Kids who have gone through some traumatic situation may experience frequent nightmares.
  • Some medications can lead to disturbing dreams.
  • Kids who have an irregular sleeping routine or not getting enough sleep are also at increased risk of having nightmares.
  • Nightmares may also be associated with fevers, illness, or developmental delay.
  • There is no gender-specific difference in who has nightmares.

Important note:
Some psychological and genetic factors can also cause nightmares in kids. Approximately 7% of kids having nightmares have a family history of scary dreams.


Ways to manage nightmares effectively

Is your kid experiencing nightmares? Here are some essential things that you can do to manage nightmares quickly:

  • Make sure to reassure your child that everything is fine as soon as possible.
  • Soothe your child, whether it is kissing him or her on the forehead or cuddling with them to ensure comfort.
  • Having a night light in your room can provide comfort. Try for a red nightlight, as others can lead to poor sleep with blue light.


Pro trick for nightmares

If your kid isn’t reassured or soothed with ease, then you have to develop a personal trick to make him or her believe that the monster or other scary object or person has gone. For this, you can create a ‘monster spray’ by filling water in a spray bottle and let your child spray the room with that.


How to prevent nightmares in your children?

To prevent nightmares:

  • Avoid frightening shows and experiences. Children more often develop stress and anxiety from what they see on screens or experience in their home.
  • Turn the screen off about 2 hours before their sleep time. It may help mitigate this problem.
  • Develop a consistent and predictable sleeping routine for your kids.

Night terrors in toddlers are different

Night terrors in toddlers and children are a different situation than nightmares. These usually occur when your kid is half woken during the transition from deep to light sleep.

Key facts about Night terrors:

  • Night terrors are common among kids between 2 to 4 years.
  • Night terrors more often occur during the 1st or second hour after falling asleep.
  • Some kids may experience night terrors early in the morning, just before waking up.
  • Sometimes the night terror episode can persist for many minutes, and the situation can be frightful for parents.
  • Commonly, children go back to sleep once the night terror episode is over. Usually, children do not even remember the episode when asked in the morning.
  • As with nightmares, there is no gender-specific difference in who has night terrors.

Important note:
When your child is experiencing a night terror, he or she may look frightened, pale, and sweaty. Your child may open their eyes wide and scream. Most often, children in this situation are not responsive to their parents or caretakers.

Causes of night terrors

The following can be triggers for night terrors in toddlers:

In some cases, we see a family history of sleep disorders in children who develop night terrors.


Best ways to manage night terrors in toddlers

Here are some of the best and most effective ways to deal with night terrors:

  • Do not wake your children up when he or she is experiencing a night terror episode. Waking your child can lengthen or worsen the situation of terror.
  • Avoid discussing your child’s situation with him or her the next day because they will not remember the condition, leading to more fear and anxiety.
  • In some cases, altering the sleep cycle of your child can help in preventing further night terrors.

Pro Tips for night terrors

If your child is experiencing a night terror episode at the same time daily, then consider waking him or her up 30 to 60 minutes before that time. Do this for a week and track the change. This often ends the process of night terrors.

Ensure your child gets enough sleep at night. Minimize screen time and caffeine consumption before bedtime.

Final thoughts:

Nightmares and night terrors in toddlers are common and usually self-limited. The highest prevalence is among young children, and they typically decrease with age.

Often, nightmares and night terrors are relatively preventable by ensuring your child gets enough sleep and minimizes screen time before bed. If your child has a nightmare, it is best to comfort them and bring them back to sleep, while waking your child with night terrors before they usually have the episode can help break the cycle.

Dr. Dina Kulik




Dr. Dina Kulik

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