Over the last few weeks I have been noticing the terms "nightmare" and "night terror" being used synonymously to describe why children wake up crying in the night. I wanted to take a few minutes and clear up the confusion between these two sleep issues. It is important to know which of the two your child is experiencing so you can take the correct steps to remedy the situation.
Nightmare is defined as a frightening or unpleasant dream. We have all experienced nightmares at one time or another as they are a very common occurrence. Nightmares happen during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep in both children and adults. Children will remember their nightmares and if they wake crying in the night, the best thing to do is to reassure them they are safe and comfort them back to sleep. The next day, keep the discussion about their dream simple. Just acknowledge that it happened, remind them it was not real, and let it go. Do not give the nightmare any power by causing anxiety over it or taking special measures to prevent it.
If your child has frequent reoccurring nightmares, there could be a problem. Try to identify any stressors at home or school that could be causing the nightmares. If there are changes going on within your family, try to keep the child's routine consistent and make sure your child is confident they are safe in their environment. One possible trigger of nightmares in children that is often overlooked is seeing or hearing about violence in the media. Try to take notice of what is playing on your TV or radio. Often times children see scary images or hear violent words and have a difficult time processing what is real and what is fiction.
Night terrors are a whole different ball game. Night terrors usually begin around 3 years old. They can very rarely happen as early as 15 months, but almost never before then. Night terrors are often hereditary and occur more commonly in boys than girls. The most obvious way to tell a nightmare from night terror is that a child cannot be awoken from a terror and they will not remember it in the morning. If you try to ask the child if they are ok or reassure them you are near, they will not coherently respond because they are technically still asleep.
Unlike nightmares, night terrors occur during the transition from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep into the lighter REM sleep. Normally, people transition seamlessly through sleep stages, but if you are genetically predisposed to night terrors and your brain triggers it at this time, the terror will occur. Some common triggers of night terrors in children include: sleep deprivation, excitement/anticipation of an upcoming event, and family stress. If your child is experiencing night terrors, try to take note of how they slept that day and what is going on in their life at the moment. If you can identify the trigger and work through that issue with the child, night terrors almost always cease to exist. While the terror is actually happening, make sure your child is safe, but try not to touch them or change their environment at all (by turning on lights for example). They simply need to be left alone so their brain can finish the transition from one stage of sleep to the next. Touching, moving, or talking to a child in the middle of a terror often prolongs it. Even though it is scary, try to remind yourself that the child is asleep and will have no recollection of this in the morning. Night terrors are almost always more difficult for the parent(s) than the child.