A – Z of Illnesses & Conditions

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Nightmares and Night Terrors

Nightmares and Night Terrors: Nightmares are disturbing dreams associated with negative feelings such as anxiety or fear. Nightmares are common in children aged three to six years. Most children grow out of them. They tend to decrease after the age 10. However, some people have them as teens or adults or throughout their lives. Nightmares are different from Night Terrors.

Until age 13, boys and girls have nightmares in equal numbers. At age 13, nightmares become more prevalent in girls than boys. Nightmares seem real, often becoming more disturbing as the dream unfolds. But nightmares usually are nothing to worry about. They may become a problem if you have them frequently and they cause you to fear going to sleep or keep you from sleeping well.

Nightmares usually occur later in the night and cause strong feelings of terror, fear, distress or anxiety. Your child may wake up and be able to remember and describe the dream to you. Nightmares in children can be caused by a frightening experience, such as watching a scary film, or by something that's worrying them. 

Talk to your child to find out whether anything is worrying them that could be triggering their nightmares. Take your child to see your doctor if they're having repeated nightmares (a series of nightmares with a recurring theme). If your child's nightmares are being caused by a stressful past experience, they may need counselling.

Night Terrors: Night terrors are common in children aged between three and eight years. A child who experiences night terrors may scream, shout and thrash around in extreme panic, and they may even jump out of bed. Their eyes will be open but they're not fully awake.

The episodes usually occur in the early part of the night and can continue for several minutes (up to 15 minutes). Night terrors are more common in children with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking behaviour.
A night terror attack may be triggered by anything that:
  • increases how much deep sleep your child has, such as tiredness, fever or certain types of medication
  • makes your child more likely to wake from deep sleep, such as excitement, anxiety or sudden noise
The best thing to do if your child is having an episode of night terrors is to stay calm and wait until they calm down, avoiding interaction or intervention, provided that they're safe. Night terrors can be frightening to witness, but they don't harm your child. You shouldn't attempt to wake your child when they're having an episode. They may not recognise you and may become more agitated if you try to comfort them.
After the episode has ended, it's safe to wake your child. If necessary, encourage them to use the toilet before settling them back to sleep.

You should talk to your doctor if the night terrors are occurring several times a night or occurring most nights. Your doctor will be able to check whether something that's easily treatable is causing the episodes. In a small number of children who have frequent episodes of night terrors, referral to a specialist service may be needed.  


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