Nightmares are scary dreams. They usually start in childhood before the age of 10. But they can occur in adults. Nightmares are more common in girls than boys. They are triggered by everyday events. Most happen late in the sleep cycle (between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.). Adults and children remember the nightmare. It may be difficult to go back to sleep. Some nightmares are recurring.
Night terrors differ from nightmares. Night terrors occur more often in children and are rare in adults. They happen during deep sleep (between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.). A night terror will cause a child to wake up screaming. He or she may be sweating and breathing fast. Your child’s pupils (the black center of the eye) may look larger than normal. Your child may still be asleep. But he or she may look awake. Your child will be confused and might not answer when you talk to him or her. Your child may be difficult to wake. Usually, he or she won’t remember what happened. Children who have night terrors sometimes sleepwalk.
Typically, nightmares and night terrors stop in the teen years. Creative adults with active imaginations may continue to have them. Nightmares and night terrors are not caused by a mental or physical illness. They occur after a stressful physical or emotional event. It might occur within the first 6 months of the event.
If nightmares or night terrors regularly disturb your child’s sleep, they can affect your child’s ability to function during the day. Talk with your doctor about possible solutions that can help. Your doctor may want to enroll you or your child in a sleep study. This overnight experience provides trained observers with details for your sleep.
Path to improved well being
There are things you can do for yourself or your child to reduce nightmares and night terrors. These include:
- Both you and your child should keep a regular bedtime routine.
- Get the recommended amount of sleep for your or your child’s age each night.
- Don’t eat or drink anything just before bed, except water.
- Avoid caffeine and other stimulants at least 5 hours before bed.
- Avoid screen time (computer, TV, etc.) 2 to 4 hours before bed.
- Keep your bedroom cool and comfortable.
- Follow a daily exercise and fitness routine. This can relax your mind and body each day. Don’t exercise too close to your bedtime.
- Learn relaxation techniques. This could include reading, listening to music, yoga, etc.
- Talk to your child about an event when it happens to reduce the anxiety. Encourage your child to write down or draw a picture of what bothers him or her. Depending upon the seriousness of the event, your child may need counseling.
- Talk to your doctor if you suspect you or your child have an anxiety disorder.
- Have your child checked for the sleep disorder sleep apnea.
- Reduce your alcohol consumption. Be aware of abrupt alcohol withdrawal.
- Don’t use illegal drugs or prescription pain medicines.
- Check to see if your child has a fever. Illness can cause nightmares or night terrors.
If your child experiences nightmares or night terrors, always comfort him or her immediately.
Things to consider
While nightmares and night terrors are generally harmless, take steps to keep your child safe during the experience.
- Do not wake your child by shaking or shouting at him or her.
- Keep your room or your child’s free of clutter in case the experience leads to sleepwalking. This will reduce tripping or falling.
- Do not give your child over-the-counter medicines that make them sleepy (such as cough syrup or allergy medicine). This is not what those medicines are designed for. It can cause serious breathing problems for your child.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Should I lock my child’s door at night for protection?
- Should I sleep in my child’s room or let my child sleep in my room?
- Is there an over-the-counter medicine I can give my child to help him or her sleep better?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.