You wake from a deep sleep to the sound of your child screaming. It’s nearly midnight and you run into his room to see what’s happening. Your child is sitting up in bed. He appears frightened, disoriented, and confused. You try to comfort him but it’s not working. He seems to look right past you and continues to scream and move around. Is he hurt? What is wrong? More importantly, what do you do?
Sleeping disturbances are very common in children. Five to 10 percent of preschool children experience night terrors and nearly 40 percent have nightmares. Understanding these frightening events will make it easier to calm your child, helping him get back to sleep.
Night terrors are most common in children, especially boys, between 2 and 6 years of age. Typically these events occur within the first four hours of sleep. Night terrors often last several minutes and start with your child sitting up in bed screaming and moving about. Your child will be sweating, breathing fast, and appear frightened and confused. Nothing you say or do will help to calm him. Occasionally, sleepwalking may occur during these episodes.
Night terrors are not nightmares. They are not dreams and children rarely remember the event. Avoid waking your child and he or she will probably go back to sleep soon after the night terror stops. If your child is moving around violently or sleepwalking, protect your child from danger.
Nightmares are scary dreams that wake-up your child. They typically occur very late at night and are more common in girls than boys. Although nightmares can occur at any age, they are most frequent between 3 and 5 years of age. During the event, your child will be wide awake and you will be able to calm and talk to her. Your primary goal should be to comfort your child and help her get back to sleep. Avoid going on “monster searches” and similar activities, which may reinforce the dream. If your child wishes to talk about the dream, do so during daytime.
Most often, night terrors and nightmares are harmless events that resolve on their own over time. Although these events may be associated with family stress or illness, a cause is often not found and they can happen anytime. If they become a daily event, your pediatrician may be able to help with getting your child back to sleep.