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Nightmares and night terrors in children

3-minute read

Nightmares are vivid, scary dreams. Most children have nightmares at times, usually in the early morning hours. Night terrors, which is extreme terror and panic often during the first few hours of sleep at night, are different from nightmares.

What are nightmares in children?

Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause children to wake up feeling scared and upset.

Most children have quite a few nightmares, especially between the ages of 3 and 6, and will usually outgrow them. Some children have a different dream every time they have a nightmare, while others may have the same nightmare over and over again.

Sometimes nightmares can be provoked by something scary. Some children are especially vulnerable to violent shows or horror movies.

What can you do to help?

If your child has a nightmare, comfort them. Tell them that the dream is not real, and that they are safe.

If your child is having the same nightmare over and over again, it might be possible to find out what is triggering it. It could be a particular game, a TV show, a toy in their bedroom or a pattern in the woodwork on the door. If you can work out what is behind them, you may be able to stop them.

Most nightmares just happen. But in some children, they are a sign of stress or trauma. If nightmares are common, or are very disturbing, talk to your child’s doctor.

Raising Children Network has more tips for dealing with nightmares.

What are night terrors?

Children with night terrors usually wake within the first few hours of going to sleep and scream or call out. The terror may last for several minutes, or sometimes up to half an hour or more. Usually the child's eyes are wide open, but are staring and not focused. It can be very scary for parents.

The child does not wake up even if you talk to them or sit them up. Often they are not calmed by hugging or talking to them. The child almost never remembers what happened the next morning. Strangely, they are just a normal part of sleep.

Most night terrors are not caused by stress, diet or parent behaviour. In some cases, a temperature can cause night terrors during illness. Sometimes night terrors run in families.

What can you do to help?

Night terrors usually fade during the primary school years. There is no special treatment for night terrors. But if you are concerned, talk to your child’s doctor.

If your child has night terrors:

  • Don’t wake them during the terror.
  • Be calm and stay with your child, and wait for it to pass. Do not try to wake them — trying to wake them can make the episode last longer.
  • Make sure the home environment is safe, as children having a night terror may sometimes run around. Lock doors and windows.

If your child has night terrors and you are going out, make sure you tell the person looking after your child about them.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2019


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