Nightmares and night terrors are very different in how they present and are definitely not the same thing as many parents are led to believe.
We all have nightmares,or scary dreams, at some stage and they are quite normal in the childhood period. They often start to appear in the second year of life and happen during REM sleep. As your child’s imagination grows and speech improves, their nightmares might become more vivid, realistic or symbolic.
Nightmares are more common in the second half of the night when active dreaming is the most intense. When having a nightmare, your child can fully wake themselves and be quite distraught and upset.
Night terrors are very different to nightmares.
They are a confusional arousal whereby your child actually remains asleep and unable to be calmed or consoled until the event passes.
These happen in very deep, non-REM sleep and usually happen within the first few hours of going to bed, often at a very consistent time too.
They are characterised by a child screaming, thrashing and appearing awake. The difference to a nightmare is that during a night terror your child will not be able to be calmed down by your presence and is absolutely inconsolable.
These are very distressing for a parent or caregiver to watch as they feel helpless. If a parent can succeed in waking their child from a night terror, the child will often seem confused and completely unaware of the behaviour they were exhibiting.
For more information on how to manage nightmares or night terrors please see the Dr Golly Preschoolers 2-5 year Sleep Program.
Amanda is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founding director of Northern & Hawthorn Centre for Child Development.
Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, her mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families, educators and corporate clients with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda is the resident psychologist & Advisory Board member at TotallyAwesome – a global child-focussed media company, where she helps to ensure advertising and branding content aimed at children is appropriate.
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