Many parents worry that their kids are experiencing nightmares or terrors when they wake up crying in the middle of the night, and I often see well-meaning parents advising the same, when in fact, that is unlikely the cause. There are so many reasons kids can wake up crying overnight and of course, nightmares or terrors could be the culprit, but oftentimes they are not. Today I will explain what nightmares and night terrors are and how to respond, to help parents identify if this is likely the cause of their child’s night wakings.

The difference between nightmares and night terrors and how best to handle them.


Nightmares tend to occur in the last part of the night. When a child is experiencing a nightmare they may wake up crying, call out and look genuinely afraid. They will be able to be awakened and consoled by their parents.  When your child is experiencing a nightmare it is important to go to them and reassure them that you are there for them and that they are safe. Try not to get into the habit of consoling them in your room or allowing them to sleep in bed with you post nightmare, as this may start a habit of them crawling into bed with you at night.

If your child is having regular nightmares it is best to try and pinpoint the trigger. Is there something happening during the day that is causing it? Are they worried about anything?  Also, look at whether they are watching something scary or playing a scary game on the iPad or gaming console.

It is important not to debrief and discuss the nightmare the next day as you are then giving too much importance to it. Let your child bring it up if it is worrying them. Try not to label it as a ‘nightmare’ to your child either as this is likely to add to the fear they are already feeling.

If your child starts to mention fears of things like monsters before going to bed it is best not to get in the habit of using things like monster spray or checking under the bed or in closets for the monsters. This is likely to a) confirm in your child’s mind that there is something to be afraid of, and b) could end in you needing to do bigger things to allay their fear. You could instead ask your child what will make them feel safer. They may surprise you with an idea of their own.



Night Terrors

Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen in the first few hours of the night. A child who is experiencing a night terror will wake up screaming, arms flailing, calling out. When you go to a child who is experiencing a night terror you will notice that they don’t react to your presence, and instead look through you.

Children can experience night terror due to 3 main reasons: 1) if they have a fever, 2) are overtired or 3) are experiencing positive or negative life-impacting events. If your child is experiencing night terrors try moving bedtime 15-30 minutes earlier as this may be enough to make them disappear. If family stressors are having an impact, then try to keep routines as normal and consistent as possible to reassure your child.  It is also useful to note that night terrors can have a genetic component.  This means that if you or your partner experienced them as a child, then your child is more likely to as well.

When your child is experiencing a night terror it is important that you not intervene. Try not to talk or touch your child. Instead of helping your child this is can actually prolong the night terror. Let the night terror run its course and just be there to make sure that your child is safe. You will notice that your child won’t remember the night terror occurring the next day, so there is no lasting impact.

If you are still not sure whether your child is experiencing a nightmare or night terror or have another reason for waking up crying overnight, please feel free to reach out. Kids wake up for lots of reasons and it is best to address the issue to help them get the sleep they need.   I offer packages to suit everybody’s needs and budget.

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