Family Health|Kids and Teens
bad dreams|night terrors|nightmares|sleep problems|sleepwalking

Nightmares and Night Terrors

Last Updated June 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

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 can be triggered by everyday events. Most happen late in the sleep cycle (between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.). Adults and children often 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. They 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 move and 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, they won’t remember what happened. Children who have night terrors sometimes sleepwalk.

Typically, night terrors stop in the teen years. Nightmares may continue into adulthood. They may be one way our brain deals with stress and fear. They can be caused by a major life event, increased stress, illness with a fever, or sleep disorder.

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 health

There are things you can do for yourself or your child to reduce nightmares and night terrors:

  • Keep a regular bedtime routine.
  • Get the recommended amount of sleep each night.
  • Do not eat or drink anything just before bed, except water.
  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants at least 5 hours before bed.
  • Avoid screen time (including phones) 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 their anxiety. Encourage your child to write down or draw a picture of what bothers them. 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.
  • Do not use illegal drugs or prescription pain medicines.
  • Check to see if your child has a fever. Illness can cause nightmares or night terrors.
  • Avoid scary movies, especially if you or your child has nightmares after.

If your child experiences nightmares or night terrors, always comfort them 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 them. 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?
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