My Child Has Nightmares & Night Terrors – How Do I Fix Them?

Dec 13, 2022

Nightmare or Night Terror?

How to determine what your child is having?

As you read that headline, I bet most of you thought, “Aren’t those the same thing?” But the answer is no they are two different types of things that can keep your children from getting the rest they need. I will dive into the differences and then give you a little insight as to what is likely the actual reason your children wake every night.

How Do I decipher Night Terrors from Nightmares?

One of the main differences between the two is the timing. Night terrors typically happen within the first few hours of bedtime which normally falls before midnight. Nightmares on the other hand happen later in the sleep cycle around 2-3 am.

Conscious vs. Unconscious – Night terrors they don’t even know you are there, nightmares, they want some reassurance.

How Do I Easily Identify if My Child is Having Nightmares?

We have all had a nightmare in our sleep. Something that you remember when you wake up in the morning that you did not like. Just like adults, kids can have stressful things that can give them nightmares such as new book at bedtime, a new experience or class at school, new friends, or even just a random time at the park. Our son had a nightmare after watching the movie Toy Story 4, when the dolls came alive. He woke yelling, crying and asking to take the toys out of his room. Bottom line, he was conscious and able to physically explain something was causing him alarm and discomfort that he could articulate.

When your kids wake from a nightmare, you can easily soothe them back to sleep and comfort them that everything will be okay. Offer then reassurance. Be accessible and supportive, but not excessive in your response, like offering to now start sleeping in there….otherwise they will keep waking “from a nightmare, because they know they get you next to them.” Instead, offer to stay in there room, perhaps in a chair next to the door, until they are back asleep, but you are minimally engageing. We don’t want to make it fun or rewarding for them.

Nightmares may happen from time to time but should not multiple times a night on the regular.

How Do I Easily Identify if My Child is Having Night Terrors?

A night terror in a child looks completely different and if you have seen one I am sure it made you uneasy to watch. The child usually is screaming and thrashing about. When you go into the room, they don’t cry out for you or say “mommy”, and that is because they are still asleep. They are NOT consciously aware you are there. Upon entering, go to them, offer perhaps your hands on their shoulders gently bringing them out of sleep and allowing them to resettle back to sleep.

They won’t typically remember you even coming in.

A night terror in a baby vs. a toddler or school age child can also happen. When a baby has a night terror, they waking between 45-60 minutes upon going to sleep and often cause crying and upset requiring intervention. If your baby has a night terror, check their schedule, 9/10 times it is because your timing is off and your baby is overtired. The right schedule and awake windows avoids the buildup of the wrong hormones that cause this. Check out the Awake Windows Chart

What if they keep happening – when should I seek professional assistance or hire a Sleep Coach or Sleep Consultant?

There is a possibility after you assess above, that your child might be waking is because of poor sleep habits. If you must help your child to sleep every night, then they are not learning to fall asleep on their own. And they will continue to need your help any time they wake. These habits cause a bedtime battle, overnight wakings frequently and early morning wakings. If you believe you have somehow ended up there, please learn more about me here and book a free preliminary discovery call to discuss your unique sleep struggles.

About the Author: Hi, I’m Katherine Fehily, Pediatric Sleep Consultant from Dallas, Texas.

If you were to sum me up in one word it would be FIXER. I like to learn and do it all. I am a mechanical engineer who designed aircraft for over ten years, and then decided to kick it up by becoming a mom. Like a true engineer, I like to know how things work and go together. Sleep is no different, I am here to help with all the sleep confusions you may have.

When our first son was born, I had read as many books as I could on babies, but nothing really prepared me for the sleepless nights. I quickly turned to google and friends to take in any and all information as I could. My engineer side knew I could solve this issue. I took my toolbox and applied it and soon the whole house was resting through that night. We recently had twins to add to our toddler. I can’t tell you how handy it was to already have the knowledge to maintain happy and healthy sleep habits for the family. 

In early 2021, after completing my Sleep Certification program & mentorship, I am excited to be joining the Tiny Transitions team, to support tired parents on their quest for rest and a Pediatric Sleep Specialist, based in Dallas, TX.