Nightmares and night terrors in kids: Do you know what to do?

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Scenario 1: You are snapped out of sleep by a teary little voice saying "Mummy, Mummy, I had a bad dream" over and over again. You look at the time -- it's 3am. And as you gather your trembling, sweaty child into your arms to comfort her yet again -- for this is the fifth

Scenario 1:

You are snapped out of sleep by a teary little voice saying "Mummy, Mummy, I had a bad dream" over and over again. You look at the time -- it's 3am. And as you gather your trembling, sweaty child into your arms to comfort her yet again -- for this is the fifth day in a row that this has happened -- you wonder with anxiety in your mind, when this will end.

Scenario 2:

Your sleep is shattered by a blood-curdling scream from your little one. As you race to his room, you see him kicking, screaming and mumbling to himself. The sight is made even scarier because your child does not seem to know who you are, despite your desperate efforts to communication to him. After about 20 minutes of this behaviour, he falls back into a deep sleep like nothing happened. What's going on? 

Do either or both of these scenarios seem familiar to you, mums and dads? The first one is typical of what happens when a child has a nightmare, and the second, when he has a night terror. 

Both nightmares and night terrors are common among young children, and while they may seem absolutely terrifying to you as a parent, they are actually much more common that you might imagine.

To bring you professional knowledge about these two experiences so that you know exactly what you are dealing with and what to do when they occur, we spoke to Dr Michael Lim, Consultant, Division of Paediatric Pulmonary and Sleep, National University Hospital. 

nightmares and night terrors in kids

A nightmare can be a terribly upsetting experience for a child, but usually, are nothing to be worried about from a developmental point of view.

Nightmares

What are they?

Nightmares are frightening dreams that usually awake a child or adolescent, leaving the child upset and in need of comfort, explains Dr Lim.

They happen during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep which is more predominant in the last third of the night, and the child tends to remember these dreams the next day.

These scary dreams tend to correspond to the developmental stages of a child, according to Stanford Children's Health. So toddlers might dream about being separated from their parents; pre-schoolers about monsters or ghosts; and older kids about real dangers such as death or illness.

Nightmares can start as young as 2.5 years of age, says Dr Lim, but occur most commonly at 6-10 years of age, with 75% of children experiencing at least one nightmare in their lifetime.

nightmares and night terrors in kids

Nightmares may be triggered when your child reads scary stories or watching scary movies or TV programmes, especially before bed-time.

What triggers them?

The most common trigger of nightmares is stress or traumatic events. According to Dr Lim, nightmares usually occur within three months of the stressful or traumatic incident.

Other than this, anxiety (e.g. separation anxiety in younger children) can increase the frequency and severity of nightmares. Insufficient sleep can also result in intense and vivid dreams, reinforcing the need for children to get adequate sleep each night.

Read on the next page how to handle and prevent nightmares. We also discuss night terrors. 

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