Witnessing your little one having a nightmare or night terror can be quite worrying and distressing. Nightmares and night terrors can often be easily confused, so it is important to understand the differences before offering your child appropriate settling strategies. To make things even more confusing, contrary to their name, nightmares and night terrors can happen at any sleep period, including during day time naps.
Nightmares are experienced when a child is awoken from vivid dreams with intense feelings of fear or dread. Older children may be able recall the content of the dreams with a fair degree of detail. Nightmares are often attributed to a child seeing or hearing something frightening or that causes them anxiety.
A night terror is when a child suddenly gets very agitated while in a state of deep sleep. The child may be sound asleep one minute, and next they are screaming and thrashing about. It may look like the child is in a panic – he may be sweating and breathing fast. It may look like he is awake, his eyes may be open or he may be crying. The child is however actually sleep so won’t respond to comfort, making it quite distressing for parents and caregivers. Night terrors tend to start within the first 2-3 hours after bedtime.
Nightmares – some common features:
How can you help:
Night terrors – some common features:
How you can help:
Cindy Davenport is a child and family health nurse, midwife and lactation consultant, and has worked in the early parenting field since 1998. She is the Co- Director of Safe Sleep Space (an early parenting consultancy group specialising in sleep and settling of infants and toddlers) and Sleep Smart (an online sleep and settling program for early childhood educators and health professionals.
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