Night terrors and nightmares in children

Nightmares occur during (REMsleep and usually during the morning hours, while night terrors happen during non-REM (NREM) sleep, and a couple of hours after falling asleep. If your child is old enough to be verbal, he might remember his nightmare or part of it, but he won’t to able to remember anything about the night terrors. So the questions that arise are many and complex: why do night terrors happen, at what age, and how can we help our children during these episodes?

Night terrors may have a genetic component too, in addition to being caused by environmental factors such as stress caused by separation anxiety, arrival of a new sibling or moving from one home to another. The study involved about 400 pairs of twins who were assessed at 18 and then at 30 months of age. The good news is that night terrors do subside with age, as half the children who had sleep terrors at 18 months of age didn’t have them anymore when they were assessed again at 30 months, according to the study. Other professionals agree that sleep terrors happen mostly in young children, up to 6 or 7 years of age. Obviously, that doesn’t help you much if your child is still a preschooler or even younger and goes through night terror episode.

What to do?

  • make sure your child is not overtired when he goes to bed
  • if he is a light sleeper, try not to make noise close to the bedroom, because that sudden semi-arousal state could trigger sleep terrors in some children
  • keeping a regular sleep schedule might prevent sleep terrors, as the body gets used to a certain rhythm

Night terrors are transient and they will not leave any psychological damage on your child, no matter how frightening her screams. But  parents who have witnessed their child experiencing night terrors need a lot of reassurance.

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