Night terrors in children — also known as “sleep terrors” — are sometimes confused with nightmares. Both cause distress and disrupt sleep, and though terrors are less common than nightmares, they are hardly unusual…especially among toddlers.
What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors, and what can be done about these conditions? Here is an evidence-based overview of each problem, with some tips for coping.
1. Nightmares in children
Nightmares are frightening dreams associated with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Kids switch back and forth between REM and non-REM sleep during the night, but spend ever-longer stretches of time in REM during the last few sleep cycles. For this reason, nightmares are more likely to occur during the early morning hours.
How can you tell if your child has frequent nightmares? That’s not always easy to tell, especially if your child is too young to articulate his or her anxieties, or has trouble remembering the content of dreams.
But overall, nightmares are very common. Most studies estimate that at least 70% of young children have nightmares at least sometimes, and the incidence of nightmares peaks in later childhood — around the age of ten years (Gauchat et al 2014). Moreover, it’s not unusual for kids to think about their bad dreams during the day. In one study, children between the ages of 7 and 9 ranked “scary dreams” as one of their top three sources of intense worry (Muris et al 2000).
So it’s likely your child will experience nightmares at some point. And when kids have particularly disturbing or frequent nightmares, it can affect both their sleep and their daytime functioning.
For example, in a study of more than 6,000 primary school children, kids who reported frequent nightmares were at higher risk for insomnia, hyperactivity, mood problems, and poor academic performance (Li et al 2011). And in other research, adolescents who experienced regular nightmares (at least one per week) were more likely to suffer from an array of psychological difficulties, including anger, attention problems, hopelessness, anxiety, and symptoms of depression (Liu et al 2022; Yang 2022).
Can childhood trauma cause nightmares?
Yes, in fact nightmares are a classic symptom of post traumatic stress disorder. Kids are more likely to experience frequent and intense nightmares if they have lived through traumatic events, such as abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters, or the death of a loved one (Secrist et al 2019).
What else causes nightmares?
Chronic stress may play a role (Nielsen et al 2019). So too may sleep loss, as well as medications that interfere with REM sleep (Moore et al 2006). In addition, viewing television may have a small, but measurable impact on the frequency of nightmares, and of course scary media content can make its way into a child’s dreams (Muris et al 2000; Stephan et al 2012).
What can we do about nightmares?
As you might expect, experts advise parents to reassure children after a nightmare — let kids know they are safe; encourage them to share the frightening content of their dreams; and remind them that dreams aren’t real. This may include turning on the light, and showing your child that there aren’t any threats in the room.
In addition, psychologists remind us to be mindful of our own, emotional reactions to a child’s distress. In particular, it’s important to avoid mirroring our children’s anxieties back at them, or otherwise act upset. Kids pick up on these feelings, and get the wrong message. Mom is emotional too. So I must be right about my fear. The threat is real!
So while it’s important to be sympathetic and sensitive, it’s also important to project a sense of calmness and confidence. For more about this — and additional, evidence-based tips, see my article about reducing nighttime fears in children.
Beyond these basics, there are other, research-based strategies. For example, studies of adults suggest that people with chronic nightmares can reduce their nighttime anxieties by using relaxation techniques, and by talking over the content of their nightmares and fears with a therapist. This includes “rescripting” the nightmare — or re-imagining it with a safe, happy ending. In experiments, rescripting has reduced the severity and frequency of nightmares (Davis et al 2011). It may also reduce the distress that dreamers feel during nightmares (Rhudy et al 2010).
We need more research to determine how effective these methods are for nightmares in children. Most of the studies that do exist are of limited value because the sample sizes are small. But the results suggest that the techniques are helpful for children as well as adults (Simard and Nielsen 2009; St-Onge et al 2015; Fernandez et al 2012; Lewis et al 2015; Kopcsó et al 2022). And I’ve found a couple of evidence-based programs that parents can try at home — “Uncle Lightfoot” and the “Dream Changer” technique.
Teach kids a nighttime skill set with “Uncle Lightfoot”
Can a book help parents guide children through effective therapies for dealing with nighttime fears? Researchers have tested this idea with a couple of experimental studies.
In both, parents were assigned to read a book to their children — Uncle Lightfoot, Flip that Switch: Overcoming fear of the dark (academic version) by Mary Coffman. In addition, the families engaged in the book’s activities, which were designed to help children to confront and dispel their anxieties, and rescript frightening aspects of their dreams. Did it work? The results look good. After 4-5 weeks, kids displayed improvements in their anxiety levels, and better coping skills for getting through the night (Lewis et al 2015; Kopcsó et al 2022)
If you’re interested in trying this program out for yourself, an edition of Uncle Lightfoot, Flip That Switch: Overcoming Fear of the Dark (Second Edition) is available for purchase from Amazon.com. (Any purchases made using this link will earn a commission for Parenting Science.)
The “Dream Changer” technique
What if we could “change the channel” when we’re having a bad dream? Well, obviously it isn’t that simple. But perhaps just imagining it could help children feel less helpless or stressed at night…and possibly inspire some beneficial “rescripting” too. Recently, researchers tested the idea in an experiment, and kids managed to reduce the frequency of their nightmares (Bourboulis et al 2022). To learn more about this approach, see my article, “The ‘Dream Changer’ technique for reducing children’s nightmares.”
2. Night terrors in children
Like nightmares, night terrors in children are distressing and disruptive. But night terrors differ from nightmares in several important ways.
- Night terrors are linked with deep, non-REM sleep, and tend to occur during the first third of the night. Unlike nightmares, night terrors are not associated with REM sleep. Instead, they occur when a child is partially aroused from deep, non-rapid eye movement sleep (“NREM3”) – usually within the first three hours of sleep onset, or during the first third of the night (Moore et al 2006; Leung et al 2020). Night terrors share this timing with sleep walking, and it’s not unusual for kids to experience both conditions simultaneously.
- Children experiencing night terrors might appear to be awake, but this appearance is deceptive. Their eyes might be open. They might be screaming, sitting upright, or walking around. But they aren’t fully conscious.
- After an episode ends, kids are unlikely to remember it. When kids do remember something about their experiences, their recall is fragmentary – a sense of having been threatened. Occasionally, children report memories of having to fight or flee from frightening monsters or other threats (Guilleminault et al 2003).
- Some children are at risk of hurting themselves. Because they can involve sleepwalking and other forms of movement, night terrors in children can be physically dangerous.
How can you tell if your child is having a night terror?
Typical symptoms of night terrors include the following (Leung et al 2020):
- Sudden, partial awakening – with the child sitting bolt upright or jumping out of bed
- Expressions of intense fear or panic
- Attempts to talk or yell (but speech is confused)
- Signs that your child’s autonomic nervous system is on overdrive, including a racing heart, rapid breathing, heavy sweating, dilated pupils, and shaking
- A lack of responsiveness to the immediate environment (e.g., although your child’s eyes are open, your child doesn’t really see you)
This might sound pretty exotic if you haven’t coped with night terrors before. But the condition is surprisingly common, especially among very young children. In studies tracking large cohorts of children over time, the age of highest prevalence is around 18 months. More than one third (35-37%) of toddlers this age experience sleep terrors (Nguyen et al 2008; Petit et al 2015).
Children tend to grow out of it, but lots of kids still have night terrors during the primary school years. Studies estimate that between 11-20% of children aged 9-10 years experience night terrors (Shang et al 2006; Laberge et al 2000; Petit et al 2015, Kim et al 2017). By the teen years, kids are less likely to experience terrors (Leung et al 2020).
How long does a night terror last?
Clinical studies suggest that most episodes last no more than 10 minutes. However, in some cases, they may continue for up to an hour (Leung et al 2020). Medical experts recommend that you consult with your doctor if your child’s night terrors tend to last longer than 30 minutes (see below).
What causes night terrors in children?
Scientists don’t really know, but it’s clear that something is going off the rails during deep, non-REM sleep. According to one theory, night terrors represent a failed attempt to transition between NREM3 and REM sleep.
In addition, there is evidence that night terrors run in the family, and that genetic factors may make individuals more susceptible (Hublin et al 2001; Nguyen et al 2008; Petit et al 2015; Leung et al 2020: Mainieri et al 2021). And sleep terrors have been linked with a variety of physical, psychological, and environmental conditions (Crisp et al 1990; Petit et al 2006; Guilleminault et al 2003; Kim et al 2017; Leung et al 2020) — conditions which have in common the potential for disrupting deep, non-REM sleep. These include:
- Overtiredness, fatigue, and sleep deprivation
- Emotional stress (e.g., stress caused by bullying)
- A noisy sleep environment
- Frequent headaches
- Sleeping with a full bladder
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Attention-deficit disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Restless leg syndrome
- Post-traumatic stress syndrome
Sleep terrors have also been associated with television. Kids who have televisions in their bedrooms are more likely to suffer from both night terrors and nightmares (Brockmann et al 2016). In part, this may reflect the fact that children with bedroom televisions are at greater risk for sleep loss and tiredness. In addition, if kids are falling asleep with the television on, the noise could be interfering with sustained deep sleep.
Finally, Sean Boyden and his colleagues have floated the hypothesis that solitary sleep during infancy increases a child’s risk of developing night terrors. But currently there is no empirical evidence supporting this speculation (Boyden et al 2018).
Are night terrors in toddlers a sign of emotional problems?
There’s no doubt that some night terrors are related to emotional problems, and so – for some children – these sleep disturbances may be indication that a youngster is at higher risk. For instance, in a study tracking more than 300 children from the age of 12 months, researchers found that toddlers who had experienced night terrors before the age of three were more likely to show signs of internalizing problems (such as depression or anxiety) when they were five (Laganière et al 2022).
But it’s important to remember that terrors are quite common in this age group. Most toddlers experiencing night terrors did not go on to show symptoms of internalizing problems when they were five. The best approach? If your child is suffering from frequent night terrors, it makes sense to watch for signs of anxiety or depression, and discuss these with your pediatrician.
How to cope with night terrors in children
If you suspect your child suffers from sleep terrors or night terrors, consult your doctor. It’s important to rule out other conditions that could be causing your child’s symptoms — conditions like nocturnal seizures, panic attacks, or post traumatic stress disorder. It’s also crucial to make sure your child isn’t at risk of self-harm during the night. In general, experts advise parents to talk with their pediatricians if they observe any of the following:
- Drooling, stiffening, or jerking movements
- Episodes that last longer than 30 minutes, or that happen frequently (e.g., twice per week or more)
- Signs of psychological disturbance during the day
In addition, it’s important to determine if your child’s night terrors are associated with snoring or other forms of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB). SDB can be dangerous, but it is treatable. And if you treat your child’s breathing disorder, you might also reduce or eliminate her sleep terrors (Guilleminault et al 2003). Experts have developed a number of treatments for SBD, including orthodontic approaches and myofunctional therapy (Huang and Guilleminault 2017; Villa et al 2017).
And whether or not your child suffers from SDB, there are other important steps you can take to improve night terrors:
- Don’t get upset or frustrated with a child who is having a sleep terror. His eyes might be open. She might be crying or mumbling. But there’s no point in trying to reason with him or her. Your child is asleep, and not capable of responding to your questions or commands.
- Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation may trigger changes in the way your child’s brain experiences deep sleep, so try to keep your child’s schedule regular by following a soothing bedtime routine (Moore et al 2006).
- Identify and treat your child’s anxieties. We’ve seen how relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy can help with frequent nightmares. The same can be true for night terrrors. For tips about coping with the anxieties that can fuel sleep terrors in children, see my article on nighttime fears.
- Avoid stimulation before bedtime — such as late night television watching or exercise (Moore et al 2006). When kids get overstimulated before bedtime, it can interfere with sleep, and increase the chance of a sleep terror.
- Make sure your child’s sleep environment as safe as possible. Remove heavy and sharp objects from the bedroom.
- If your child is sleep-walking, stay calm and gently guide him or her back to bed (Moreno 2015). Experts recommend that you avoid waking your child up because it may “confuse and frighten the child even more and can lead to paradoxical increase in aggression” (Leung et al 2020).
- If your child’s night terrors follow a predictable pattern each night, consider the treatment known as “scheduled awakenings.” This treatment involves waking your child up about 30 minutes before he or she usually has a night terror episode. Let your child go to the bathroom, and then return to bed. In small clinical trials, this treatment had a lasting, beneficial effect on both sleep walking and night terrors in children (e.g., Durand 2002; Frank et al 1997).
Other articles about sleep problems in children
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Content of “Nightmares and night terrors in children” last modified 2/2023. Portions of the text derive from an earlier version of this article, written by the same author.
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