Nightmares occur during the dream (Rapid Eye Movement, REM) stages of sleep, usually very late at night or in the early in the morning.
After a nightmare, a child will usually be responsive, will know who you are and be reassured or soothed back to sleep.
The child may or may not remember the content of the dream, but if you ask them about it the next morning, they’ll usually remember that they had a nightmare.
Nightmares that have appeared as a result of anxiety, trauma or grief can be worked through with a mixture of counselling and good sleep management skills.
Night terrors are a very different phenomenon. They occur when there has been an interruption to the very deep (non-dreaming; NREM) stage of sleep.
During a night terror, a child will be not quite awake, yet not completely asleep. Their mind might stay ‘asleep’, but their body may act as if it is awake (screaming, thrashing, walking around or acting out events).
Your child may appear extremely emotional, frightened and may not recognise that you are his/her parent. They may not be responsive to conversation.
It will usually be quite difficult to reassure your child. They may run away, behave aggressively, or simply not respond to you.
Usually, your child will not remember having the night terror the next morning.
Night terrors can usually be managed by (a) following a consistent night time routine, and (b) vigilantly tracking your child’s sleep stages to permit scheduled awakenings.
Dealing with sleep issues can be emotional and exhausting for the whole family. However, the good news is that the experience of nightmares or night terrors will usually not result in any long-term psychological symptoms.
An experienced child psychologist can help you to:
- Learn to track your child’s sleep patterns and look for cues
- Provide strategies for good, life-long sleep habits
- Use an evidence-based program of scheduled awakenings to successfully prevent and reduce night terrors and reset your child’s sleep cycle
- Determine if there are other confounding factors (e.g., anxiety, other specific sleep disorders, or if night terrors are actually related to another medical condition, such as Diabetes)
- Determine if further referral (e.g., to specialist sleep clinic) is necessary