Bad Dreams and Night Terrors in Toddlers

We all know how frightening a nightmare can be, even as adults we can have dreams that wake us up in a cold sweat or stay with us through the day leaving us feel shaken. For children who find it harder to discern between reality and dreams, these nightmares can be very traumatic.

We naturally wake up and feel relieved that ?it was only a dream? while children wake and find themselves in a different place, time and situation and feel even more frightened. So how do you deal with a toddler nightmare and how can you discern when it is more than just a nightmare and that your child is suffering from night terrors?

Nightmares and Night Terrors

A nightmare and a night terror are very different. Telling the difference should be easy when you learn to recognize the very telling signs of a night terror.

Night terrors are not dreams; they are feelings of extreme fear and panic that occur during the first few hours of sleep when the child is moving from one type of sleep to another. They are typically much more dramatic than nightmares; they result in the child being inconsolable and can be very disturbing for the parent to witness. No matter what you say, do or try to distract them with, the child is likely to be completely oblivious to your attempts to comfort them. During the night terror they may scream in terror, thrash around the bed and may be sweating or hot to the touch with a racing pulse. When this subsides, they should simply go back to sleep. One of the biggest clues that the incident is a night terror rather than a nightmare is the fact that the child won?t remember anything about the night terror, whereas a nightmare will probably be remembered, at least in part.

Comforting a Child after a Nightmare

If your child has a bad dream, they may be unable to ‘switch off? from it. So they may still be terrified of the monster that frightened them in the dream and may be very reluctant to believe you when you explain that it was ?just a dream? and not real. It is difficult to explain to a toddler that a nightmare was just that, a nightmare, but with patience and much consoling of the frightened child, they will calm down. They may not want to be alone so you might be best staying with them until they fall asleep again. Sometimes a favourite (happy) story or funny song might help reassure them that the world is the same place it was when they went to bed and that there really is nothing to be afraid of. If the dream featured a particular character or event, you might want to discuss it in daylight to try to relieve any lingering feelings of anxiety.

Dealing with Night Terrors

Your child wont realize you are there consoling them after a night terror, they are not truly awake in the normal sense of the word. So console them if you can, stay with them and on some level they will know you are there. Let them go back to sleep and reassure yourself that, terrifying as the incident was, they will not remember it the next day. They may sleep a little later or feel a little more tired but they won?t continue to be frightened. Night terrors are, in many ways, worse for the parent witnessing them than for the child experiencing them. If your child is prone to night terrors when ill or stressed, try to help them relax before bed, make sure they are getting enough sleep and don?t be afraid to ask your doctor for advice if the problem is on-going.